Saturday, October 3, 2015

Closing Out the Proms: Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius

At least as of this posting, you may listen to the performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius at the Proms (the penultimate night) in Albert Hall on September 11, 2015 on the BBC site. Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Vienna Philharmonic. Reviews of the soloists were mixed, but both the composition and the orchestra/chorus were appreciated, as in this commentary:

And so it ends – with angels and archangels and “heart-subduing melody”. The Proms might not officially finish till tomorrow night, but this penultimate concert is always the true close of the season, and what better or more fitting an ending – especially on this most poignant anniversary – than Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.

Cardinal Newman’s verse – the outpourings of a fervent Catholic convert – is spiced with incense and ecstasy, drawing music of matching potency from Elgar. Sprawling over two fat halves rather than a tidier multi-movement structure, the oratorio unfolds in almost continuous swelling and ebbing of melody (cruelly bisected here by an interval), expanding to fill any space with its surges of choir and orchestra.

But The Royal Albert Hall isn’t just any space. A temple to art and science, it is to secular aspiration as Elgar’s oratorio is to spiritual. It’s a friction that only intensifies the piece in this setting – Victorian England distilled into an evening. It was Gerontius, however, that prompted Strauss to hail its composer as “the first English progressivist”, and this new Austro-Germanic drift was sympathetically captured in this performance by Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Golden-sweet, the Vienna strings traced halos round Elgar’s lines, softly insistent but never striving to fill the hall, finding an exquisite simplicity for the opening of Part II. Where they were bright the brass glowed darker, urged by Rattle into barking frenzy for the demonic sections, but otherwise a supportive foil to baritone Roderick Williams’s deliberately shaded vocal colours. . . .

Founded in 2012, the BBC Proms Youth Choir brings together young singers from choirs across the country, its personnel changing every year. What has remained constant, however, is the standard. While perhaps a less natural fit for the thicker and weightier writing of Gerontius than 2012’s
A Child of Our Time (unaided here, as with 2013’s Sea Symphony, by the BBCSC), the chorus made it work on their own terms. Mezzos found a lovely forthright tone for the lower writing, while the men came into their own as the demons. And all, from the tight fugal “Dispossessed” to the hushed pealings of the Angelical Chorus, was immaculately precise, following Rattle’s carefully (sometimes too-carefully) crafted shapes to the last detail.

As send-offs go this was a good one – a celebration of British musical richness whose quiet affirmations left none of the sour aftertaste the jingoism of the Last Night traditionally provides.

Today is the 115th anniversary of the premiere in Birmingham, which was a disaster because of an unprepared chorus, but The Dream of Gerontius is a masterpiece. Sir Simon Rattle and the same forces presented the work in Lucerne a couple of days later last month. 

For years, of course, Rattle was the conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and he recorded Gerontius with Janet Baker in her second recording as the Guardian Angel (the first was with Sir John Barbirolli). Here is one reviewer's opinion of her artistry:

Janet Baker has recorded the role of the Angel twice : with Barbirolli (1964) and Rattle. More than twenty years separate the recordings and both bring huge rewards. There is no denying that the voice is far fresher in 1964 where Miss Baker delivers a very dramatic reading of the role, no doubt spurred on by Barbirolli. The interpretation has softened and deepened by 1986, but it is to the earlier recording I turn again and again. As when discussing the Gerontius of Nash and of Vickers, words cannot adequately do justice to the sheer thrill of Baker's performances, but a few examples must be given. As with Yvonne Minton, the poise on the last section of the 'Angel's Song' is exquisite with Barbirolli; with Rattle it remains very beautiful and there is even an added warmth. "You cannot now cherish a wish..." in the 1964 recording is one of those phrases that simply lives on in the mind - totally unforgettable. Staying with 1964, Baker's launching of the "duet" 'A presage falls upon thee' is simply glorious and, as already implied, with Richard Lewis an ideal blend is achieved to magical effect. With John Mitchinson (Rattle) this section lacks a sense of repose. Only Janet Baker, in both recordings, can match Alfreda Hodgson in the section "Yes, for one moment thou shalt see thy Lord - one moment". With Baker I hear it with tears pricking my eyes. Throughout her exchanges with Mitchinson's Gerontius, she achieves a stillness not always in evidence under Barbirolli. And so I could go on. If you want to judge for yourself, I would ask you to listen to the 'Farewell' under Barbirolli. This is glorious singing by any standard with some heart-stopping moments, eg. "I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee" (figs 128-129) - this is surely the peak of Janet Baker's art.

Here is that "Farewell" from the 1964 recording.

Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And o'er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.
And carefully I dip thee in the lake,
And thou, without a sob or a resistance,
Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take,
Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance.
Angels to whom the willing task is given,
Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as liest;
And Masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,
Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.
Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.
Farewell! Farewell!

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