A Memorable Dream of Gerontius Aptly Prefaced by Britten Canticles

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar: Allan Clayton (tenor); Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano);  Gerald Finley (bass-baritone); London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Barbican Hall,, London, 24.4.2016. (CC)

The Dream of Gerontius

Plus pre-concert: Britten Canticles IV; I; III

Jean-Max Letterman (counter-tenor); Adam Sullivan, James Way (tenors); Jake Muffett (baritone); Matthew Horn (horn); Dylan Perez (piano)

This was a high profile occasion, featuring high-rank soloists and a conductor rooted in English music, Sir Mark Elder. Presented with no interval, this was a short evening, particularly given the 7pm start (it finished around 8.50pm. The performance marked the centenary of World War I and, specifically, a 1916 wartime fund-raising effort by the LSO when Elgar himself took Gerontius on tour with the orchestra for the Red Cross.

The London Symphony Chorus, itself celebrating its half-century anniversary this year, was in fine voice throughout. The Barbican acoustic can tend to blur textures, but Elder ensured clarity in the most fearsome writing was maintained.

Elder opted for antiphonal violins, with double-basses behind the first violins to ground them. Microphones were suspended – an LSO Live recording, perhaps? One hopes …

Elder has never been a conductor to hang around (see my review of his Proms Mahler Ninth Symphony with the National Youth Orchestra), and indeed in this Elgar his pacing was superb – extremely natural throughout with no unnecessary lingering or superficial indulgencies. There was a flow and inevitability about the reading that made the entire performance one large span. The orchestra responded splendidly to Elder’s clear but expressive beat; the chorus, too, followed superbly, their sound perfectly balanced (chorus master Simon Halsey). Brass glowed, while the opening melody blossomed out fabulously. And Elder’s opera pit experience seemed to resonate with what, in this account, sounded like an echo of the third act of Wagner’s Parsifal during the final stages of the Angel of the Agony’s “Jesu! By that shuddering dread which fell on Thee”.

A Gerontius lives and dies (an apposite phrase in this context) by the singer that takes the role, and here it was the tenor Allan Clayton, who I saw most recently in ENO’s Magic Flute (review). His full, emotive voice was excellent from the off, while his plangent “Sanctus Fortis, Sanctus Deus” was tremendously affecting; the later statement of that phrase was even more full-throated. There was a Wagnerian strength to his voice, heroic in Gerontius’ final hours and carrying a real sense of drama. It was no surprise, then, that the LSC’s cries of “Rescue him, O Lord” emerged as a proper plea, the parenthesised “Amen”s a contrasting ppp supplication to the Almighty. In Part II, Clayton’s sensitive side triumphed, a gorgeous “How still it is!” over luminous, gossamer strings expertly marshalled by Elder.

Gerald Finley was the Priest in Part I, his “Profisciscere” huge and full, his high register strong and expressive; the choral blaze of light thereafter made for a highlight of the performance. His faultless delivery of the Angel of the Agony’s solo in Part II (“Jesu! By that shuddering dread”) was spellbinding.

Alice Coote’s Angel began with a full, plummy (but not over-vibratoed) “My work is done” that led to a radiant “Alleluia”; but Coote could have an edge to her voice, too (“Hungry and wild …”). “There was a mortal” was transfixing, before Elder shone light through the music in the accompaniment to “And now the threshold”; her “Alleluia” as the piece moved to a close was radiant.

As Demons, the LSC created an infernal, monstrous aggregation of sound, their staccato, diabolical laugh magnificent in its malevolence. A pity that after the transcendent Souls’ “Lord, Thou hast been our refuge”, the final hymn of praise of the Angelicals just missed its mark. It was not enough to rob the work, or this performance, of its greatness, but significant enough for one to feel just that little bit cheated.

Prior to the main event, there was a free performance in the concert hall of three of Britten’s Canticles. Canticle IV, for counter-tenor, tenor, baritone and piano sets T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi magically, serenely and with the utmost compositional confidence, resulting in a true meeting of genius poet with genius composer. The three voices were nicely balanced; it was interesting how the tenor and counter-tenor seemed to join registrally at one point and intersect. Jake Muffett’s focused baritone grounded the performance; the climax and “Birth or Death?” was significant.

Canticle I is for tenor and piano, and sets Francis Quarles’ My Beloved Mine. James Way was a strong tenor, capable of superb melismas, a trait so crucial to fine Britten singing, Finally, Canticle III, which sets Edith Sitwell’s Still falls the rain. True, Matthew Horn’s opening was not perfectly steady in the low-register beginning, but this performance held its magic – the bare textures at “Still falls the rain/In the Field of Blood” was, properly, a high point, while tenor Adam Sullivan gave the plaintive line of “the blind and weeping bear” superbly; similarly, the muted horn and tenor alone passage was remarkable.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Britten Canticles deserve more frequent outings.  These performances were a perfect aperitif before the Elgar.

Colin Clarke