In 1983 the 28-year-old Simon Rattle conducted a pair of performances of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in Birmingham and London with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – the group of players that he turned into a world-class orchestra, and in so doing, consolidated his early popularity, and set himself firmly on the trajectory to becoming Britain’s best-loved conductor.
Thirty-two years later, about to return to Britain after over 16 years with the Berlin Philharmonic, he has repeated this pairing – with a performance of the work in Birmingham last Tuesday, and a performance – to riotous applause both before and after – on the penultimate night of the Proms last night. Anyone wondering what Sir Simon Rattle might have brought to the piece after 32 years would have given a simple answer: ‘intensity’. The changes in dynamic were even more marked, from the tiniest hushed passages in the introduction and at The Angel’s last exquisite farewell, to the massive crash of ‘the glance of God’; Elgar’s sudden crescendo/decrescendo moments were even more sharply observed, as were his many sudden brief shifts in tempo and massive allargandos. The lengthy setting of the hymn ‘Praise to the holiest’ was a masterpiece of light and shade – every phrase nuanced in speed, volume and timbre.
In all of this process, Rattle was aided by the brilliant Vienna Philharmonic. A first thought might be to worry how a non-British orchestra might cope with the music of the ‘quintessentially English’ Elgar. But this is a mistake, since Elgar’s music is firmly rooted in a European chromatic tradition, the piece is full of Wagnerian leitmotiv and the dramatic minor seventh that introduces The Angel of the Agony is pure Mahler. The strongly romantic-Catholic ethos of Gerontius, furthermore, responds well to a European treatment, and the orchestra gave it all of this: golden-rich low strings at the opening; sinister scratching on the strings as the demons were introduced; hefty-yet-agile brass during the Demons’ Chorus itself; the lightest dusting of high violins accompanying the Choir of Angelicals.
Also on top form was the BBC Proms Youth Choir, founded in 2012, and intended to be a long-running project to introduce young people to performance with major orchestras. The massive choir’s youthful dazzle was perfectly controlled, and they responded adroitly to the rapidly changing tempi and dynamics – producing on several occasions that magical almost-silence that occurs only rarely with large choirs, and has probably been heard only once this Proms season, in Kullervo. The basses of the choir, unfortunately, have not yet acquired the low resonant harmonics that come with age, but this is always part of the trade-off with young singers, and it was made up for in the bright enthusiasm of the upper voices.
The three soloists presented a mixed offering. Magdalena Kožená (or ‘Lady Rattle’, as Debrett’s might insist) sang the part of the Angel with intensity; some reviews of Tuesday’s performance criticised her over-dramatic performance, but it fitted in well with the middle-European feel of the evening, and her low notes were magnificently sonorous. Roderick Williams sang The Priest with a warm tone, and The Angel of the Agony with more incisiveness, but, alas, the role – especially in the Albert Hall – needs a bigger voice; somehow, only Willard White has ever managed to make ‘Proficiscere anima Christiana’ sound like a priestly command. Fans of the late Peter Pears will have enjoyed Toby Spence’s account of Gerontius, which added uncertainty of production to an oversized vibrato.