Germany Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius. Soloists, Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie/Frank Beermann (conductor), Alfred-Fischer-Halle, Hamm, 13.6.2015
Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius suffered an inadequate première in Birmingham in October 1900. The choir, faced with some of the most challenging music they can ever have encountered, was poorly prepared by an elderly chorus master who was drafted in at a late stage. To make matters worse the orchestra was equally under-rehearsed and the great German conductor, Hans Richter had not mastered in advance this new and much more complex score. Somehow they got through to the end and despite the manifest inadequacies of the performance Gerontius was warmly received by both the audience and the critics.
Among those present in Birmingham that day was a German conductor, Julius Buths. So impressed was he by the music he heard that he was determined to play the piece in Germany, even to the extent of investing a significant amount of time in translating the text into German. Buths led performances of Der Traum des Gerontius in Düsseldorf in 1901 and 1902. Elgar attended both performances and both he and the piece were acclaimed. Those Düsseldorf performances were very important events in the early performance history of the work though I’m not sure how frequently Gerontius is played in Germany these days.
Gerontius was first heard at a Three Choirs Festival in 1902 when the composer himself conducted a performance in Worcester, the first of nine Three Choirs performances that he was to conduct. The work quickly became a staple of the Three Choirs repertoire and singers who sing in the Festival Chorus almost have it in their blood. In the year that the Festival marks its tercentenary it was very appropriate that the Festival Chorus should make a trip to Germany to sing the work – in English. The choir’s destination was the city of Hamm in North Rhine-Westphalia. Hamm is a medium-sized German city in the north-east of Germany’s Ruhr area. It has an industrial and coal-mining heritage. The nearest major city is Münster. Hamm was a fitting place to perform Elgar’s great work for it is only some 60 miles from Düsseldorf so, in a sense the work was being taken back to its German roots.
Though not every member of the Festival Chorus was able to make the trip, a chorus of over 80 singers travelled to Germany. My wife and I are not members of the Chorus but travelled as guest singers. It was a fairly demanding schedule. The coaches left Gloucester and Hereford at 1.30 am on the morning of Friday, 12 June. An early flight to Germany followed by a two-hour coach trip to Hamm got us to our destination by early afternoon, enabling a late lunch and some acclimatisation before a three-hour rehearsal on the Friday evening. On Saturday we were at leisure during the day, recharging our batteries before the performance that evening.
The performance was part of the KlassikSommer 2015 series of concerts in Hamm in which this year English music is well represented thanks, I believe, to the influence of conductor Frank Beermann. The venue for this concert was the Alfred-Fischer-Halle on the outskirts of the city. This is a very substantial performance space created by the re-development of a large former industrial building – the origins are confirmed by the inscription ‘Kohle ist Brot’ over one of the front doors and by displays of artefacts and photographs inside that recall the building’s heavy-industrial background. Given the hall’s origins and the fact that it is now designed as a multi-functional performance space it was not surprising that the acoustic is very different to the resonant cathedral acoustics in which the Festival Chorus is accustomed to singing. However, a Friday night rehearsal with the orchestra and soloists accustomed us to the venue.
The concert was generously sponsored by a local bank, Sparkasse, which is marking its 175th anniversary. The sponsors and organisers had the satisfaction that the concert was a sell-out, attracting an audience of more than 1,000.
The Festival Chorus may have sung The Dream of Gerontius many times before but it was new to most if not all of the other performers. I don’t believe the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie had given the piece previously but they offered playing that was sensitive and at other times exciting, according to Elgar’s demands. All three soloists were, I think, making their role debuts.
The tenor, Niclas Oettermann sang the title role. He is quite a young singer with both an operatic and concert pedigree. He offered a committed performance of the role that was often operatic either in its passion or pathos. His voice, frequently attractive in timbre, had no little strength; some of his top notes were thrillingly projected. However, his interpretation is still a work in progress. I didn’t feel that he had yet fully come to terms with the spirit of the role or that the music was properly settled in his voice. Moreover, the peculiar challenges posed by English vowels often discomfited him.
Also making her role debut was mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle. I’ve heard her before as one of the soloists in Jonathan Nott’s very good recording of Mahler’s Eighth (review). Earlier this year she sang Wagner with Sir Simon Rattle. She has an impressive CV and it was not hard to hear why. She brought a rich, lustrous voice to the role of The Angel and she also demonstrated a fine degree of identification with the role. Hers was an impressive performance by any standards, committed and involving. I understand that this is a role she has long wanted to sing; I hope she will be given further opportunities to do so
Bass Renatus Mészár was sonorous and commanding as The Priest and The Angel of the Agony. In both roles he radiated authority. Not all basses are equally well suited to both roles but Mészár brought equal distinction to each of his solos.
I was very interested to note that Mészár sang his solos from different positions on the platform. For the Angel of the Agony solo he came on to the stage and sang from a position at the front of the platform, near to Miss Baechle. However, earlier on he had delivered the Priest’s solo from within the orchestra, just in front of the choir. I suspect that this was done to convey the fact that, as the Priest, he is leading the choir in the obsequies for the Soul of Gerontius. Later in the work, however, he fulfils a very different function. “Before the Throne stands the great Angel of the Agony” sings the Angel to the Soul of Gerontius so it’s entirely appropriate that the bass is near to where the other two leading characters are standing. I’ve never seen this done before but it was effective and I suspect it was the idea of Frank Beermann.
Beermann has been Generalmusikdirektor at the Chemnitz Theater since 2007 and has conducted widely in Europe, both in opera houses and with leading orchestras. He has a number of CD recordings to his credit. I believe that his links with the Three Choirs Festival go back to the co-commissioning by the Festival and Chemnitz of Torsten Rasch’s A Foreign Field, premièred at the 2014 Three Choirs Festival. Beermann was scheduled to conduct the second performance of the work in Chemnitz earlier this year but was obliged to withdraw due to illness. He’s conducting quite a lot of English music at present; this was his first performance of Gerontius. When he came to Gloucester to take a chorus rehearsal a week before the concert I was impressed by the fact that though he had all the detail of the score at his fingertips and a clear idea of how he wanted to shape the performance he was prepared to consult with the choir on a few points – especially points that are in the performance tradition of the work but not necessarily written in the score. In rehearsals, conducted in a pleasant yet business-like fashion he evidenced a very full and idiomatic understanding of the score. He’s a conductor who prefers to rehearse in long “takes”, rather than stopping frequently and that’s great; it builds concentration among the players and singers and it gives everyone a very good sense of the sweep and shape of the interpretation. In the performance itself he shaped the music sympathetically and with a keen eye for the drama in Elgar’s writing. A few times his tempi diverged from the “accustomed norm” but always in a considered way and with the intention of imparting urgency to the music. I’ve taken part in a few concerts where the conductor focusses on the orchestra to the detriment of the chorus. That wasn’t the case here; Beermann was consistency attentive to all his performers and his conducting was always clear and easy to follow. I’m surprised to see no mention of British performances on his website. If he is yet to make a British debut I hope that won’t be long delayed, especially as he seems to have a genuine enthusiasm for English music. I was very pleased that he made only a short pause between Parts I and II – that’s the way the work should always be done but often isn’t – and that the audience maintained a very respectful hush during this short break.
As a member of the chorus it’s not my place to comment on the choral contribution to the performance. However, we hoped that we had upheld the English Choral Tradition and the generous applause not only from the audience but also, very pleasingly, from the orchestra, seemed to suggest we had been successful. The most satisfying thing, however, was to see a sell-out audience of over 1,000 giving Elgar’s masterpiece a prolonged standing ovation. It was good that 113 years after Gerontius was first heard there it still had the capacity to move an audience in North Rhine-Westphalia.