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Prom 75: Vienna Philharmonic's 'Dream'

We welcome this review by guest contributor Martin Fraenkel, from the Proms in London. Readers are invited to listen to this concert online (Part 1 | Part 2).

available at Amazon
Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius, J. Baker, J. Mitchinson, J. Shirley-Quirk, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, S. Rattle
Earlier this summer, Daniel Barenboim brought his Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra to London’s Royal Festival Hall and gave a profound account of Elgar’s second symphony. Barenboim was awarded the Elgar Society Medal and spoke movingly of the role of Elgar in his life, and especially of his late wife, the “great Elgarian” Jacqueline du Pré. His mission, he said, was for Elgar to be recognized not as a great British composer but simply as a great composer.

Yesterday, across town, at the Royal Albert Hall, Prom Number 75, the penultimate of the season, marked a further step in Elgar’s ascent into the stable repertory of the world’s great orchestras. In the second of its two appearances this season, the Vienna Philharmonic was on stage, led by Simon Rattle, performing the most monumental of all Elgar works, The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar has been a prominent part of Rattle's career, too, and this performance showcased many of his characteristic hallmarks: expansive orchestral phrasing, ample use of pauses, and the lingering suspended silence following the final “Amen.”

In these hands, there was no doubting that this work had more to do with European Fin-de-Siècle angst than the pomp and circumstance of imperial England, with which Elgar is so firmly associated by his best-known works. Written in 1900, shortly after the Enigma Variations had brought Elgar to prominence, The Dream is an outpouring of Elgar’s Catholic faith, both splendid and anguished, trying to reconcile it with the long choral tradition of the Anglican empire. The depth of tone of the Vienna string section more than rose to this task, with the viola section relishing their unaccustomed prominence right from the opening prelude, including a hauntingly beautiful solo by the principal. At times indeed this Dream sounded more like an orchestral tone poem with vocal accompaniment than a choral work. The trombone section, although prominent, never overplayed the moments of magnificence Elgar accorded them.

Other Reviews:

Andrew Clements, Vienna PO/Rattle: The Dream of Gerontius review – persuasive dramatic power (The Guardian, September 9)

Alexandra Coghlan, Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius, VPO, Rattle (The Arts Desk, September 9)
Sadly, the brilliance of the orchestral playing was not quite matched by the vocalists. Through much of Part 1, Toby Spence’s rather thin Gerontius was often straining to make his presence felt over the orchestra. The lighter orchestral accompaniment of Part Two gave him rather more opportunity but was offset by similar challenges for mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená’s Angel, exacerbated by her over-prominent hand gesticulations. Only baritone Roderick Williams’s Priest had the depth and warmth of melodic tone to impose himself, producing the one moment of real vocal drama with his first entry.

The massed ranks of the BBC Proms Youth Choir, a collaboration of several youth choirs, performed admirably throughout. With nearly five hundred performers on stage, at times it seemed that Rattle was strained to the limit to keep the ensemble together. With this great orchestra playing at the peak of its capabilities one was left feeling that a truly outstanding evening required more from the supporting cast.

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