Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius (Simon Rattle cond. Vienna Philharmonic, BBC Proms Youth Chorus)
Last night a big crowd was guaranteed at Symphony Hall: two of Birmingham’s adopted sons – Simon Rattle and Cardinal Newman. Gerontius as an oratorio might be seen similarly, as it was in Birmingham in 1900 that it was first performed. Rattle brought with him quite a band. The combined forces of the Vienna Philharmonic and BBC Proms Youth Choir I’d estimate numbered nearly four hundred. A certain volume was surely imminent. In the way perhaps only Rattle can, the music had the most astonishing freshness, as if he gazed on the score for the first time; I am quite sure this will hold at the Proms on Friday. The Vienna Philharmonic were on fine form. This was a chance to hear them in the best acoustics rather than those of the Royal Albert Hall – I was surrounded by several people visiting from London.
Singing was more of a mixed bag. I’ve read elsewhere of grumblings that whatever opera Rattle’s Berlin band does has to offer a gig to his wife mezzo Magdalene Kožená. Alas, Kožená seemed at times to be at the upper limit of her vocal range – were some notes slightly strained, I wondered. Toby Spence offered an ethereal if somewhat unemotional account. Roderick Williams was sans raproche and fitted in well. Moreover, he had no difficulty in rising above all those instruments and all those singers. The real problem was that neither Spence nor Kožená really filled their parts. Halsey and three additional chorus masters had obviously worked wonders with the Chorus but the price of all those young voices was that at times they were not as perfectly-martialled as they might have been, leading to a little harshness at times. The trade-off was almost certainly worth it.
The real limitation of the evening lies with Elgar. Dare I say that he is essentially second-rate? I am aware he has an army of those holding him aloft as the great English symphonic composer. As oratorios go, this is the most limited sense given how little happens. It is hard to imagine staging it as with Handel’s (e.g. Saul at Glyndebourne most recently).
Overall, to go with the Austrian theme: this was splendid TBA – full, rich and intense, of remarkable texture, but made from the wrong grape.
Repeated, and brodcast from, the Royal Albert Hall on Friday evening. Details here.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Magdalena Kožená mezzo-soprano
Toby Spence tenor
Roderick Williams baritone
BBC Proms Youth Choir