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.