‘Several disappointments’ in Vienna Phil’s Dream of Gerontius

Birmingham Post critic Christopher Morley was serially dissatisfied with Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic’s Elgar performance, a warm-up for the BBC Proms. Read his review here.

simon rattle vienna

A somewhat corroborative view from the Guardian, here.

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  • The only disappointments seemed to be with two of the three soloists rather than with Rattle and the VPO. “Orchestrally this was a triumph”, says Morley, giving four stars for the whole thing. So I’m certainly still looking forward to Friday.

  • Norman is lying outright. He hates Rattle and the Vienna Phil himself, but there’s not a word spoken against either in the review he references.There is strong praise for the conductor and orchestra, actually:

    “What a difference various conductors make: I have heard this august orchestra sound dire under certain carvers, but Simon Rattle here encouraged the players to breathe life into this amazing score, realising that there are not just Wagnerian undercurrents to tickle their fancy but also so many other genuine depths of utterance. Particular praise to the lower strings for authority and presence.”

    The criticism? “Indeed, all the problems arose vocally”.

    Now, now, Norman…

    • Pretty breathtaking misrepresentation of the writing of another. The headlines quotation comes from the first line of the review, but the comment following is the polar opposite of what the review said a few lines later. This is outrageous.

  • Why do some critics use phrases like this: ‘As Gerontius, Toby Spence sang appealingly, but lacked the operatic heft for the impassioned “Sanctus fortis”, evoking yearnings for Heddle Nash or Richard Lewis at this crucial moment’. Heddle Nash stopped singing in the 1950s and Richard Lewis in the 1960s. It’s doubtful this critic ever heard them in the flesh, and there are few clear recording of Nash, so what purpose, beyond self-aggrandisement, does this serve?

    • Given this critic’s age, and knowing that he’s been attending concerts regularly since early childhood, it’s actually perfectly possible he did hear them both perform live.

      But even if he didn’t, there’s absolutely no reason why live performances shouldn’t be discussed in reference to recordings – which are, for an overwhelming number of listeners, the principle means by which they’ll know a given work.

  • ==when Kozena took the lower option in the final, climactic “Alleluia”, that just about clinched it.

    She is a mezzo after all. There’s no reason she should be able to hit that top A

    • And if that option was also good enough for Yvonne Minton (with Britten) and Helen Watts (with Boult), it certainly should be good enough for him. It all looks like a fairly futile exercise in picking nits to me.

      • It was good enough for Elgar too: in the vocal score (at least in the early edition I’m looking at right now), the E is a large note – and presumably the preferred note. The higher A is a small note. When Janet Baker sings the top A it’s thrilling, but to criticise anyone for singing what Elgar actually wrote seems weird to me.

  • Interesting to read the review and then the Slipped Disc interpretation of the review. I prefer the former and would be mightily cross at this distortion.Or not surprised at all.
    Toby Spence was Gerontius for the RSNO and Peter Oundjian in May. His voice did not work for me or indeed many others. It is a lovely voice but something was missing to give it that extra sonority.

  • Heddle Nash was a magnificent Gerontius but “heft” would not be an appropriate word for a lyric tenor in the mould of Alfredo Kraus.

    • Well, Nash did have heft compared with Toby Spence, who is a marvelous Handel/Mozart/Britten tenor whom I would never have expected to hear singing against with an Elgar-sized orchestra.

  • I was in Symphony Hall last night, and thought the review was a little on the harsh side, particularly in relation to Toby Spence who sang beautifully throughout and lacked no heft that I could discern. Roderick Williams was excellent and commanding. I did think Magdalena Kozena wasn’t quite right, but not for the reasons given above. She was fine in the middle register, and in the quiet music, but hers is essentially a lighter voice, and she didn’t have the power to rise above the orchestra in the louder sections. I’m not bothered about the top A, but I was hoping for more in the lower register. The hand gestures were a bit flamboyant, but having seen a couple of DVDs of her in action, I think it goes with the territory. So all in all, a singer I’d like to see again, but maybe in Mozart….

    The combination of the Vienna Phil and Rattle in his old hall was stunning, there was so much drive and purpose to the performance, and no praise can be too high for the wonderful choir.

    I’ll be tuning in again on Friday……..

    • I was there too, and agree with you. As a whole it was incredibly moving and powerful – one of those concerts that I will remember for a long time.

  • Guardian wrote

    “The only problem stemmed from Magdalena Kožená, Rattle’s wife, singing the part of Angel. Her performance had an edge of hysteria, more Wagner’s Kundry than Elgar’s Angel, and her fidgety hand gestures were distracting.”

  • We also went last night and really enjoyed the evening. (We hope the lady who collapsed part way through in the stalls made a full recovery. )

    We loved the orchestra and the choir was great. Roddy W was professional, clear and crisp. Toby S sang well but was too light for us. Magdalena’s gestures were not irritating to us but we felt diction was poor and a bit warberly/lacking in power. Some surprising choices?

    Enjoyable but not as good as the centenary performance of Geronteus we last saw at Symphony Hall in 2000.

  • About Kožená: Like Spence, she has mostly been a (terrific) Bach-Handel-Mozart-with-period-instruments singer – with, in her case, sidelines in Czech and French art song and Debussy’s Mélisande.

    She was well-established in those areas long before she married Rattle. That said, if she hadn’t married Rattle, I doubt anyone would have thought to hire her to sing Elgar with a full symphony orchestra and choir.

    When I heard she was singing in Gerontius, I had hoped that she’d sound more angelic and less (to my ear) matronly than the singers one usually hears in that part. But I guess I can’t be surprised that, in the event, she apparently ended up straining.

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