A singularly unique Elgar Dream of Gerontius with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle, Prom 75 at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Many good orchestras have played Elgar, but rarely has his music been played with such luscious, sumptuous gloss. In the UK, we're used to hearing Elgar in an Anglican context. Some of the finest performances have taken place in Anglican cathedrals, such as at the Three Choirs Festival, and in concert halls where the audience is either agnostic or Protestant. Yet Elgar was fundamentally Catholic, brought up in an aestheic of saints, incense, and mystic ecstasy. The Dream of Gerontius thrives in the golden luxury of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's distinctive sound. Rattle has conducted the piece many times, but with the VPO, he achieved the sublime. This Dream of Gerontius felt like a Cathedral, honouring the splendour and glory of God.
A Prelude to die for (ouch!). From hushed darkness, the first string theme emerges. A chill, reminding us of imminent death.. Yet the magnificent strings rise ever upward. Faith isn't rational. The violin theme was played with a richness that, like faith, defied the constraints of mundane existence. This prepares us for "Jesu, Maria - I am near to death, and Thou art calling me;" In the orchestra, we feel "chill at heart, this dampness on my brow". Toby Spence has done The Dream of Gerontius many times, and probably has personal reasons for understanding what it means, If his timbre on this occasion was strained in parts, he found renewed vigour in moments like "Miserere, Judex meu" which he projected with fervour. Perfectly true to Gerontius's emotional state. The pain has wearied me". Echoes of Catholic hymnal surface, subtly, in the orchestra, setting the context in which the Priest (Roderick Williams) intones absolution. The Priest's lines repeat with the regularity of chant, picked up by the VPO with great subtlety. Perhaps it helps that some of the players, at least, grew up with ceremonial prayer and connect it to a state of grace. Williams's voice is warm with feeling and compassion,. He illuminated the word "Christ" so it shone, the orchestra underlining the glow.
The orchestral introduction to the second part was magical. Gerontius has awoken into a strange new world. "How still it is", sang Spence, " I hear no more the busy beat of time".The orchestra murmured quietly behind him. Now Spence was refreshed, singing with a sense of excited wonder. Magdalena Kožená gets a lot of nasty stick in the press, which she doesn't deserve. In this performance she gave tender fragility to The Angel, reminding the Soul that its trials are not yet over. "It is because then, thou didst fear...and so for thee the bitterness of death is passed". The flames of Hell whip wildly into life - wonderful dramatic playing for an orchestra attuned to Faust . If the "hahas" from the BBC Proms Youth Choir weren't as maniacally demented as they could have been, their singing reminded us that the voices aren't those of mature adults, but Satan's half-formed Demons.
"The sound is like the rushing of the wind - The summer wind - among the lofty pines", sings the Soul, entering the Hall of Judgement. The VPO deliver again, with magnificently vivid playing , truly "a grand mysterious harmony. It floods me, like the deep and solemn sound of many waters". Newman's text is getting the grand but un-grandiose treatment it deserves. Rattle's duty is to galvanize rather than to conduct in the normal way. Thus inspired, the VPO gives its best. A finale that rang with lustre of an orchestra who have Beethoven embedded in their souls. I felt that I too was in the presence of some kind of God. Listening links HERE and HERE
Please also read my post on the Vienna Philharmonic Brahms Schmidt Prom with Semyon Bychkov, and my numerous posts on Elgar