The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38
Gerontius – Toby Spence
Priest / Angel of the Agony – Roderick Williams
Angel – Magdalena Kožená
BBC Proms Youth Choir
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 11 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
It was not until 1957 that The Dream of Gerontius reached the Proms unabridged, a development associated with the arrival as chief conductor in 1948 of Malcolm Sargent who was widely respected as a choral trainer. He directed six complete renditions between 1957 and 1966, always with Marjorie Thomas as the Angel. Simon Rattle seemed a less likely champion of the piece when he first recorded it in the 1980s, a project sometimes assumed to be motivated primarily by the oratorio’s Birmingham connections. Since that time he has conducted plenty of Wagner, proving himself most pertinently an outstanding interpreter of Parsifal, while the great European orchestras have begun playing Elgar more often. Daniel Barenboim having led the Berlin Philharmonic in The Dream of Gerontius, it was with the Vienna Philharmonic that his old rival here returned to music that clearly means much to him.
The results proved at least as ‘idiomatic’ as Semyon Bychkov’s perplexingly lumpy Brahms the previous night. The rich, dark tone of the Viennese strings cast an immediate spell in the Prelude and while Sir Simon’s recent tendency to micromanage textural substrata was much in evidence so too was his abundant experience with the ceremonial, the mystical and the practical. Observing every detail in the score did not preclude spontaneity; the portamento rarely seemed merely pasted on and the opening of Part Two was exquisite though some will have found its radiance manicured. Rattle’s climactic moments had an operatic as much as devotional intensity. Perhaps we can agree that the overall effect would have been even more potent without an intermission.
What had not changed was Rattle’s rather idiosyncratic choice of soloists. With the CBSO he had three veterans: Janet Baker, John Mitchinson and John Shirley-Quirk. This time his singers were not past their prime but may have sounded more plausible as broadcast. Toby Spence was a Gerontius more youthful and vocally grateful than his predecessor, involving certainly yet short on heft and sometimes strained. Roderick Williams was the Priest and the Angel of the Agony, his glorious baritone less taxed than might have been expected by the lowest notes and with his characteristically superb diction intact. Magdalena Kožená brings a unique intensity to everything she tackles but this was a performance with an edge of hysteria perhaps deliberately recalling Wagner’s mysterious Kundry rather than the Edwardian immovability of Clara Butt. Admirers of Janet Baker will have been the first to note that Kožená took the lower option on the climactic “Alleluia” before Gerontius’s judgment. For those for whom it matters she was a nervy vision in cream.
The BBC Proms Youth Choir, assembled each summer from choruses around the UK, was a less controversial asset, wonderfully clean and accurate and capable of a phenomenal dynamic range as drilled by chorus-director and perennial Rattle collaborator Simon Halsey. The special eloquence was palpable even in the over-spacious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.
A full house listened with close attention save for a clutch of mobile-phone users and Rattle’s body-language successfully discouraged premature applause at the close. The anguish and strain of “Take me away” will always be problematic for unbelievers but the music, just as plainly, is masterly. These distinguished performers, who had given the work in Birmingham a few evenings previously, move on to close this year’s Lucerne Festival. What will the well-heeled Swiss make of it? Perhaps it will help that Cardinal Newman’s text – so precisely Catholic and so very English – will not be centre stage. And definitely no popcorn.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms