Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

There was much anticipation in packed Royal Albert Hall for the
penultimateBBC Promenade Concert on
Friday 11 September 2015, whenSir Simon
would conduct Sir Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of
with the Vienna
Philharmonic Orchestra
, soloistsToby
,Magdalena Kozena andRoderick Williams,
and the BBC Proms Youth Choir. The Dream of Gerontius was a work which
featured regularly on concert programmes in Birmingham during Rattle’s period
with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but probably has not featured
much in those of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

What we can easily forget, though, is that in the period up to the First
World War, Elgar was highly regarded by his continental colleagues. The
Dream of Gerontius
was enthusiastically received in Germany when first
performed there in 1901 and 1902, and Richard Strauss regarded Elgar as a
fellow progressive composer.

Simon Rattle opened the prelude on just a thread, with the a lovely sense of
the undulating line. Rather than giving us a richly cushioned string sound, we
heard a magically transparent texture with extraordinary clarity. The sense of
phrasing was very distinctive (something the mezzo Magdalena Kozena shared),
and it is a long time since I have heard portamentos used in so frequently and
so effectively in the work. But that said, Simon Rattle had a tendency to hold
the music up rather then letting it flow on. This was a performance where we
were encouraged to stop and admire the daisies rather than stride into the
wider landscape. But though much was quiet, intensely contemplative there was
drama too this was not a self-regarding account of the work, and the moments of
drama in Elgar’s score were stunningly realised, and all the more telling for
being contrasted with such intense quiet.

The work was cast with three lyric soloists, Toby Spence, Magdalena Kozena
and Roderick Williams, which chimed in with Simon Rattle’s view of the work.
That said, it was noticeable the Rattle did not give the sort of space and
sympathy to the singers as a conductor like Bernard Haitink (whom I heard
conducting it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with Richard Lewis and
Alfreda Hodgson in the early 1980’s).

Toby Spence sang with a lovely even focussed tone, and no hint of distortion
or strain but it was noticeable that especially during part one he had to work
hard constantly, you were aware of the mechanics behind his voice to enable him
to ride the cushion of the orchestra. But the result was, ultimately very
satisfying. A direct, plain-speaking Gerontius but one sung with immense
musicality. And he sang with the sort of fine, straight tone which could
project to the very end of the Albert Hall. Because of this, the famous moments
such as Sanctus fortis stood out less as arias, and were woven into
the texture but were no less moving. Spence’s approach was not as operatic as
some tenors whose experience is on the opera stage, but he brought a good sense
of drama even when not singing. Overall he created a fine and absorbing sense
of Gerontius the character, and of course some of his floated notes, supported
by the transparency of the orchestra, were simply magical.

Magdalena Kozena, looking rather too consciously the angel in a white dress,
brought her familiar qualities of intense involvement, wonderfully plangent,
direct tone and a sense of profoundly musical phrasing. It has to be admitted
that though her English was clear, it was also rather occluded but she was
clearly working the words strongly, in a way which does not always happen when
foreign singers sing English oratorio. Without being her interventionist, this
was a performance where the singer shaped every single phrase in distinctive
way. For much of the earlier passages in Part Two, her delivery ended to the
over emphatic as she struggled somewhat to project her lower register in a part
which was designed for a contralto or a mezzo-soprano with a strong lower
register. For the moments when she was able to float her tone in the upper part
of the voice, this meant we were treated to some gorgeous, intelligent singing,
so that the concluding Angel’s Farewell was simply magical.

Roderick Williams sang the Priest and the Angel of the Agony with forthright
directness. He does not have the biggest, blackest voice in these roles, but
compensated with the intelligence of his approach and a fine sense of

But the stars of the performance, almost eclipsing the Vienna Philharmonic
Orchestra, were the young singers of the BBC Proms Youth Choir. Drawn from the
CBSO Youth Chorus, Halle Youth Choir, Quay Voices, Royal Welsh College of Music
and Drama, Ulster Youth Choir and University of Birmingham Voices, with the
result numbering some 330 singers. They sang with clear, focussed and unforced
tone which brought an extraordinary clarity to the individual lines, the whole
welded into a single expressive whole. There is something wonderfully
particular about the sound of a huge choir of young voices, with numbers ample
enough so that there is no forcing.

I heard them last year in the Proms performance of Britten’s War
, and was impressed and the group was similarly on form this year.
But what took the breath away was how the young singers did everything that
Simon Rattle asked, so that much of the choral part was sung on a magical
thread with each singer producing what must have been just a breath of sound.
This was matched by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra so that we had some of
the most quietly intense and transparent moments in this work that I have ever
heard. Listening again in BBC iPlayer these
passages have a greater sense of presence thanks to the placing of the
microphones, but in the Royal Albert Hall there was a sense of evanescence
which matched Simon Rattle’s view of the work. It wasn’t all hushed of course,
and the great moments like the end of Part One and Praise to the
were notable for the amazing combination of musicality, clarity
and power which the young singers brought to the piece.

I have to confess that when I first started listening to this performance, I
was not certain that I was going to like it. Though there were impressive
details, it did not coalesce into the sort of absorbing Gerontius
performance which I wanted. But by the end, Simon Rattle and his forces had
drawn me in. I wasn’t just admiring the details, but carried along with a very
particular view of the drama and the sense that all performers were aligned in
a very distinctive and highly involving vision. This is not a performance I
would want to live with every day, but it was still magical.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Toby Spence, Magdalena Kozena, Roderick Williams, Vienna Philharmonic
Orchestra, BBC Proms Youth Choir, Sir Simon Rattle. BBC Proms at the Royal
Albert Hall; 11 September 2015.

Click here for access to the broadcast of this performance.

image_description=Magdalena Koûen· [Photo © Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]
product_title=Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Magdalena Koûen· [Photo © Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]