Friday, 5 November 2010
Elgar Gerontius Spence Bach Choir Westminster Cathedral
David Hill is a specialist in this repertoire, as his recordings with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra attest. The Bach Choir's reliable. Yet for all its magnificence, the Dream of Gerontius rests on the tenor part. It's formidable, defying even very good singers because of its range and duration. Pity then that I couldn't hear Toby Spence's singing, even though I was in "premium" seats near the front of the nave. Spence made heroic efforts but the sound was lost in the vastness of the Cathedral's enormous dome.
It's the same problem that plagues the Royal Albert Hall. Organ and orchestral music is wonderful, but solo voices disappear. Domes are designed so the sound of the congregation rises upwards towards God. Theology doesn't make good concert acoustics.
Westminster Cathedral is like no other. Planned in 1900, consecrated in 1910, it's a bizarre amalgam of Italianate, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Late Victorian, Viennese Secession and Arts and Crafts style. Outside, all the church buildings have unusual stripey brickwork : think Keble College, Oxford or Euston Station when it was built, the highest point of architectural innovation at the time. The architecture is surprisingly progressive and ecumenical. Hundreds of different kinds of marble, wood and stone, creating a lively patchwork that symbolizes the diversity of the physical world. The patterns in the marble are so beautiful it's hard to believe they were made by nature, not art. God's work, so to speak. The delicate paintings which can be seen in the photo of the chapel behind where the performance took place disappear into darkness at night, but again that has theological meaning : we don't need to see them, but we know they exist.
The Bach Choir were arrayed on a platform in front of the gates in this photo, so their sound projected forward. Nice, reliable singing but more animation would have been welcome. The demons plotting in Hell could have been done with much more devilry and wit. Down to earth humour is part of the good natured vision Elgar and Newman were trying to create. Hill conducted well, the orchestra clearly audible.
If Toby Spence had been positioned in the pulpit, he would have been heard to better advantage. Pulpits are designed to project solo voices, after all. This is such a difficult part that a tenor deserves all the help he can get. The baritone hardly sings at all. James Rutherford's voice comes close to bass, and booms nicely so would not have been quite so lost in front of the orchestra. Patricia Orr's Angel was pretty, though again barely audible. Such lovely bouquets! Who's their florist? Toby Spence deserved the biggest one for effort. He wisely conserved himself safely until near the end when he bravely made a big effort to project. If you were sitting at the back and didn't know the piece you might have thought it was orchestral and choral. Please see my commentary on Newman, Elgar and the Dream of Gerontius HERE. It's a very deep and inspirational piece so without words, much of the impact is lost.