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Magdalena Kožená [Photo © Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]
12 Sep 2015

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Magdalena Kožená [Photo © Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]


There was much anticipation in packed Royal Albert Hall for the penultimateBBC Promenade Concert on Friday 11 September 2015, whenSir Simon Rattle would conduct Sir Edward Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, soloistsToby Spence,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 musicality.

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 Requiem, 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 Holiest 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.

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