Simon Rattle's Dream of Gerontius

The BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in Elgar with the Vienna Philharmonic

Simon Rattle's Dream of Gerontius
Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic

When Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius was first heard, in Birmingham Town Hall in 1900, the performance didn’t go at all according to the composer’s plan. And even before the unsatisfactory premiere, he had placed the blame for its failure squarely at the door of the under-rehearsed chorus. 115 years on and it’s quite a different story. The BBC Proms Youth Choir, which was founded in 2012, did a sterling job at the Symphony Hall season-opener: musical, passionate and thoroughly prepared by chorus director Simon Halsey for the challenges of Elgar’s deeply felt, large-scale masterpiece. As the angelic voices, their youth brought heavenly innocence. As the demons, they spat out their ‘Ha! Ha!’s with forceful venom although, just once or twice, their fervour lead to untidiness.

The choir was a perhaps unexepcted highlight given that the headline names were the Vienna Philharmonic and Simon Rattle. Not that they disappointed: the Vienna Philharmonic strings, especially, brought out all the Wagnerian power and sensibility of Elgar’s score, notably in the Prelude. And Rattle paced and marshaled his forces with expert sensitivity, shaping the emotional surges and pulling-backs as Gerontius's soul makes his heavenly journey.

As Gerontius, tenor Toby Spence had all the musicality if not quite the firepower to bring home the anguish in Part 1 – a quality especially lacking in the ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus’. But in Part 2, a lighter, more lyrical side of his voice seemed to blossom as the Soul of Gerontius. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená was an Angel with a voice of autumnal richness and heartfelt expression; not serene but always moving. And baritone Roderick Williams, ever polished, was authoritative as the Priest and Angel of the Agony. They all head to the Proms this Friday for the season's penultimate concert and – especially for the glory of the BBC Proms Youth Choir – should be well worth hearing.


Simon Rattle picture credit: Stephan Rabold

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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