sat 18/11/2017

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius, VPO, Rattle | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius, VPO, Rattle

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius, VPO, Rattle

A glowing ending to the Proms season with a celebration of British musical richness

Simon Rattle: an emotive and emotional performance scaled to the dimensions of the Royal Albert HallBBC/Chris Christodoulou

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.

Golden-sweet, the Vienna strings traced halos round Elgar’s lines

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 Sir 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.

Williams was the stand-out of a trio of well-balanced soloists all at the lighter end of the work’s spectrum. Abandoning his usual flexible lyricism, Williams dug deeper for his role as Priest and the Angel of the Agony, losing none of his beautiful clarity of diction but here anchoring it with a weightier tone and depth of colour. Against such relaxed openness it was impossible not to feel the tension in Toby Spence’s Gerontius – working hard throughout the range. An audible crackle in the lower register gave way to a ringing clarity at the top, and if this wasn’t the easiest of performances, Spence’s emotional conviction carried this plausibly fragile and flawed Gerontius successfully to his maker.

Magdalena Kožená’s Angel (pictured right) was more problematic. Earthy where she should have been other-worldly, her “Alleluia” was more Carmen than Virgin, bulging and surging (vowels rarely certain) and never quite trusting the music to work unaided. Her musical Catholicism was the clamorous crowds and icon-overload of Lourdes rather than the stern Gothic purity of Chartres.

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.

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms 2015

Magdalena Kožená’s musical Catholicism was the clamorous crowds and icon-overload of Lourdes

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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