Rattle’s Wonderful Gerontius at the Proms Lacks Dramatic Impact

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 75 – Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), BBC Proms Youth Choir, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London. 11.9.2015 (JPr)

Prom 75_CR_BBC_Chris Christodoulou_2
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
in The Dream of Gerontius (c) BBC&Chris Christodoulou

Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)

Toby Spence (tenor)

Roderick Williams (baritone)

There are two issues affecting my writing this review: firstly, I was unable to avoid reading Geoff Read’s consummate review on this site of the same concert a few days earlier in Birmingham and find very little to disagree with … and secondly, this Prom came within three months of a tenth anniversary of the only other Gerontius I have heard live which was in 2005! I won’t link to that review because I will use what I wrote then to reflect on what I now heard.

Over the intervening years and as experienced from Sir Simon Rattle and the superb Vienna Philharmonic it was even clearer that when the BBC publicity says This is spiritual inquiry at its most musically intoxicating and ecstatic a work that reaches after the same mystic transcendence as Wagners Parsifal’ it is pure hyperbole. It seems possible for some to hear Wagner where it isn’t but miss it where it is (hint Mahler’s Seventh Symphony)!

In 2005 I wrote: ‘The music is variously described as Wagnerian; according to Stephen Johnson’s programme note [for the London Symphony Orchestra] “Elgar learnt … from Wagner … so thoroughly that the listener hears only authentic Elgar.” I would put it differently; despite his obvious admiration for Richard Wagner (he was a visitor to the Bayreuth Festival) he had actually learnt little. In fact the composer that most came to mind in very many ways was Verdi. (Interestingly enough Elgar wrote a symphonic study of Falstaff in 1913). Choruses from Trovatore,Otello and his Requiem came to mind and never more so than in the Demons’ “Ha! Ha!” which so reminded me of Ballo. Yes … Gerontius sings “Mary, pray for me” which is redolent of Tannhäuser and there was a fleeting moment of Meistersinger with the choir of Angelicals but it must be remembered that the conductor of that disappointing first performance [in 1900] was Hans Richter, and had there been anything Wagnerian here he would surely have recognised it and taken more interest in the music.’ At the Proms I also now heard fleeting hints of Parsifal but little else.

I went on to discuss how in the Prelude ‘there is a slow heavy tread played by low woodwind and double basses which in Mahler’s hands would have been Gerontius’s fading pulse, and it is famed for including no fewer than ten themes repeated as Leitmotifs through the rest of the work. For me (forgive me, Elgarians) it made me think of the overture to a ballet or musical.’ Now I thought about the film scores of Hollywood’s Golden Age! And then I continued, ‘I don’t think Elgar had the personal conviction to produce a worthwhile libretto and a finale of any real drama, engagement or “enlightenment” leaving us with “Soft and gently” by the Angel, and the simultaneous singing of “Praise to the Holiest” by the Angelicals and a Psalm by the Souls. All rather beautiful, but all very fey.” Ten years on I stand by this and of course those Elgarians may accuse me of musical ignorance but there is no sense of an apotheosis as Mahler gives his Second ResurrectionSymphony or his Symphony of a Thousand … or Wagner does to the closing pages of the oft-mentioned Parsifal.

Toby Spence gave further evidence of what a fine singer he is but this was Gerontius as Tamino when what was needed was a Peter Grimes. I think he could have railed a little more against the dying of the light in Part One and ‘Sanctus fortis’ needed ‘more welly’ – to evoke the words of Alberto Remedios a tenor of a previous generation who would have been a fine Gerontius but never, I think, sang it. Spence never less than appealing to listen to also needed to be more visionary for his souls journey in Part Two. Proms favourite, Roderick Williams, was the best of the trio of soloists and his voice had gravitas and meaning as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony. Sadly worst of the three was Magdalena Kožená, she was dressed extravagantly in white and looked like an Angel, but unfortunately she did not sing like one. I wonder if she would have been performing with Rattle if she was not his wife. Where the Angel needed to be compassionate and understanding she was overly operatic and she lacked the ecstasy for ‘And now the threshold’. The great song of compassion that crowns the work, ‘Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul’ as the Angel leads the Soul to Purgatory was underwhelming in its compassion. There were hints in her voice that she had listened to recordings of Kathleen Ferrier singing the Angel but hints were all it was.

Nevertheless, there were many wonderful moments in this concert that will make me return to Dream of Gerontius sooner rather than later in the hope of the ‘perfect’ performance which this wasn’t. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (with women players just reaching double figures!) and the huge possibly too huge ¬ BBC Proms Youth Choir excelling in all their contributions made the journey to the Royal Albert Hall worthwhile. There was some expressively lovely playing from the famed VPOs strings and woodwind, with the brass both radiant and weighty. Sir Simon Rattle – who perhaps would benefit from more time in the opera house relished the ethereal beauty of the score with exquisitely sensitive long melodic lines but there was zero drama. Elgar did not like Gerontius being called an oratorio … but oratorio it undoubtedly is.

Jim Pritchard

This concert is available for 30 days via the BBC Proms website or listen to and download the Proms on your mobile or tablet via the BBC iPlayer Radio app.

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