First review: Barenboim's Dream in Berlin is simply the best

After diplomatic waltzes between Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim over who conducts an Elgar oratorio with the Berlin Philharmonic, David Haslett has sent in to Slipped Disc his first-night review of Barenboim’s performance of The Dream of Gerontius.

I was at the Friday performance. Revelatory. All in all the best Gerontius I have heard live and I have heard about a dozen going back 30 years, mostly in London. There were a few imprecisions such as will happen in live performance and Barenboim’s tempi and his use of rubato did mean that orchestra and chorus had to be on their toes. Barenboim is improvisatory in performance which is why we in Berlin adore him. No two performances are the same. But the quality of orchestral playing and choral singing meant that this was a Gerontius way above and beyond any standard performance in the UK.

Barenboim’s tempi were idiosyncratic with regard to what one is used to. The prelude was much slower than usual but had a hushed intensity I have never before encountered. Otherwise tempi tended to be on the fast side. The demons’ chorus did have loads of rubato – the orchestra visibly loved it and the choir followed him every step of the way. Quite simply, I have never heard a better choir in this music. But then Simon Halsey is incomparable as a choir master.

Storey, in his first Gerontius, was extraordinary. He has reclaimed the role for the heroic tenor after a long tradition of King’s College alumni. The Tristan of our age brings all his experience in that role to bear on the ravings and sufferings of Gerontius. How often do we find an heroic voice that can sing softly? Without resorting to crooning or falsetto this was a Gerontius who coloured and lived the role with a searing intensity. I am not sure I will henceforth be able to accept a lyric tenor’s ‘Take me away’. This was a really generous performance, alert to the idiosyncrasies of his Maestro, and unstinting in outpouring of passionate tone.

I have heard better Angels than Anna Larsson. She is an intelligent singer but the voice is not inherently beautiful and she was stretched by the part.

Kwangchoul Youn impressed. Few can encompass the demands of the high flying Priest and the more bass-like Angel of the Agony but he pulled it off, and in creditable English.

I think this was an important performance, not only in bringing Elgar’s masterpiece to a German audience in resplendent form, but also in revealing the work as a restored painting. Everything was approached anew. A reading which had only Ian Storey as an English element. It presented Elgar to the world.

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  • Ian Storey the Tristan of our age??! You are joking right? Ah, but you must be, given that you also seem to believe Anna Larsson’s voice to be not inherently beautiful. Something very strange going on here…

  • This is a very odd notice. I didn’t hear the performance, but if it’s the ‘best performance I have heard live’ in 30 years according to the critic, why so many negative features? ‘Imprecisions’ shouldn’t happen even in a live performance and he hinted in a nice way that Anna Larsson was rubbish! And who are the King’s College alumni? – sorry but this was a provincial crit!!

  • This review is so far off my own experience of hearing Barenboim’s performance, admittedly a radio braodcast and on a different night, that I wonder how genuine it is. Storey and Larsson were both strained by their roles, and colourless, and rather than describing Barenboim’s tempi as idiosyncratic, self-indulgent would be more appropriate, especially when he often seemed to be going against Elgar’s music, with contemplative moments rushed or moments of drama held up by huge rallentandi. A webcast is being made available of the third performance, last Saturday’s, so it will be easier for everyone to judge how successful or not it was. Incidentally, Rattle gave performances of Gerontius with the Vienna Philharmonic at the end of 2010 to rave reviews. A comparison of the two interpretations, if a recording exists of the Vienna offering, would be fascinating. I think it ought to be pointed out that the photo above is from another concert, as clearly there are no soloists or choir, so the impression of a standing ovation may be misleading.

  • I watched/listened to the Digital Convert Hall performance the following Saturday. I adore the Elgar Vln Cto, the Enigma Variations, the Sea Songs, and the two symphonies.

    This was the first time for me to hear Gerontius though I’ve read much about it over a lifetime of playing and listening to classical music.

    I was bored out of my mind with Gerontius!!!!

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