Elgar’s Gerontius in Vienna

This article was first published on ionarts.org

Elgar on the continent is a rare occurrence for a number of reasons which would be worth an essay (or five) of its own. Vienna is no different.[1] When there is an Elgar-sighting, it’s either limited to the Enigma Variations, the Second Symphony, or the Cello Concerto. Amid this rarity of Elgar, another work has reared its head (or hundreds of heads) more frequently in the last decade or so: The lush choral non-oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Three performances in the last 8 years is pretty decent (altogether there have been five), and every Viennese orchestra has now got a shot at it. The first one was the most experimental band in town, the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra under Charles Mackerras, which gave the Viennese (maybe even Austrian?) premiere of The Dream of Gerontius in 1986[2] [Edit: This is not correct; see footnote]. The last one to join the party was now the Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra, whose technical HQ is in St. Pölten (basically to Vienna what Baltimore is to Washington D.C., if less charming) but whose center of gravity might be said to lie in Vienna. The third performance on January 31st, like the first, was at the Musikverein’s Golden Hall, conducted by the seasoned, excellent Thomas Schønwandt, and with the Vienna Singverein on choral duty.

available at Amazon
E.Elgar, Dream of Gerontius,
M.Elder/The Hallé/A.Coote, P.Groves, B.Terfel
Hallé HLD 7520

It’s not really a duty, of course, for a choir to sing Elgar’s most indulgent, catholic, perfumed and incense-enriched work – in fact, it’s probably the choirs that are behind pushing for Gerontius, which is choral red meat. The Singverein threw its excellence into grateful choral work with enthusiasm and sang like a well-oiled machine of 103 cylinders or throats. The Tonkünstler Orchestra sounded pretty darn good, too, with heft and dark breadth and surprisingly symphonic and warm, with the strings especially benefitting from the acoustic of the Golden Hall mixing the voices very nicely towards the back. (Closer to the action, it wasn’t quite as impressive; one could hear that the impression further away was the result of good blending rather than a instant of supreme instrument-for-instrument excellence. But that’s the point of such acoustics and that the Tonkünstler Orchestra isn’t quite the Cleveland Orchestra we knew before and no shame in it.)

The three juicy vocal parts want to be well cast, too. Despite two short-term replacements (Sara Fulgoni for Sarah Conolly und David Butt Philip for Steve Davislim), they were. Most notably the young David Butt Philip (a youthful British cheese-aficionado who looks like a young Wallace, minus Gromit), whose stentorian-lyrical, beautiful voice with just a hint of cliché (a mix of strain on emphasis and concordant increase in vibrato) was really very, very good. Indeed, just a touch of facelessness short of ideal.

The baritone was Matthew Rose, whom we have followed on ionarts over the years: I was unimpressed with his Figaro in a dull revival of a Dieter Dorn / Jürgen Rose production in Munich. Charles saw him in Don Giovanni in Santa Fe, where he “skewered the role with deadly accurate comic timing”, and again in 2014 at a Vocal Arts D.C. recital, where he noted that “Rose’s voice continues to grow, after first striking me as a little gruff and unrounded”, but that he “still tends, in some cases, to hurl [his powerful voice] at the music”. All that came up again in this Gerontius. It’s a very present, darkly radiant, and audible voice, that can grow huge, go high and low without diminishing at either end of his considerable range and is, within limits, hugely impressive as he belts it into deep space. But the louder it gets, the more operatic and less nuanced it becomes. Bellowing out his part in the first half, he sounded more like
several cavemen on a boar hunt than a consoling priest. On the other side of the dynamic spectrum also lies a treacherous field, because every time he eased up and softened the pressure, the voice roughened and became slightly frayed. Hopefully not cause for concern.

Sara Fulgoni’s mezzo featured a mature vibrato bordering (by 2017 standards) on a wobble, but with a harmonious enough sound and, appropriate enough for an angel who’s been around for at least a few millennia, a degree of ripe radiance.

In “Surprised by Beauty”, Bob Reilly dedicates most of the chapter on Elgar to The Dream of Gerontius. Astutely, Reilly puts his finger on the one shortcoming, the libretto. It is based on the mystical poem of the same name that Cardinal Newman had written some 30 years before Elgar wrote this almost-oratorio around the turn-of-the-19th-century. Reilly points out that “Newman’s poem is startlingly literal, visionary but didactic. The psychology of a dying man is convincingly captured, but Gerontius’ recitation of certain Catholic doctrines on his deathbed is dramatically awkward. Equally awkward are the metaphysical observations Gerontius makes in the afterlife such as, ‘a uniform And gentle pressure tells me I am not Self-moving, but borne forward on my way.’” And Reilly is a fan! He continues: “Also, some of the language is stilted. It is a measure of Elgar’s melodic gift that he could make the following sound mellifluous: ‘They sing of approaching agony Which thou so eagerly didst question of.’”

Here’s one of my favorites: “And at this balance of my destiny / Now close upon me, I can forward look / With a serenest joy.” What—was this translated into and back from German, first!? Without consciously remembering Reilly’s observations, I wrote down almost the same response in my notes during the concert: “It is a testament to the music that the archaic language of the clunky, didactic libretto seemingly has done no great harm to the popularity of the work.” Since the Tonkünstler’s program book included a German translation, I started comparing and, much to my surprise, found that the 1901 translation conductor Julius Buths had made for his German premiere of the work to be a vast improvement. In fact, Buths just about managed to turn it into a graceful, lyrical poem. If we weren’t so verklemmt about singing everything in the original language these days, instead of the vernacular, this version should be predominant whenever the work is sung in German-speaking countries.

That’s not going to happen any time soon, but more performances of Elgar – Gerontius or otherwise – hopefully will. The success of Elgar before a very decently sized audience (though in St. Pölten it had apparently drawn less of a crowd) suggests that might just happen. True, continental musical sensibilities might not be sufficiently attuned to Elgar’s idiom for him to become a staple, but it also struck me on this occasion, how Gerontius really could be thought of as the British step-brother of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (but conveniently cheaper to put on). Perhaps that’s an approach to ease more Elgar into programs in continental Europe. The subsequent addition of variety – especially if other Anglo and even Scandinavian composers might similarly benefit from it – would do the central European musical ‘meat & potato’ diet a world of good!

You can find the Surprised by Beauty Recommended Recordings Section here.

[1] I count 29 symphony orchestras performing Elgar in Vienna Konzerthaus’ 100-year history, for example, excluding chamber orchestras but including visiting orchestras which account for 13 of those occasions (another five go toward the precursor of the Vienna Symphony – usually when English guest conductors were in town: Albert Coates, Adrian Boult, or Thomas Beecham, for example.) The Musikverein featured probably even less Elgar, but their archive isn’t nearly as comprehensive and/or accessible than the Konzerthaus’, which makes checking before 1950 impossible.

[2]In his article “TWO ENGLISH ORATORIOS: Edward Elgar and Vienna” (in: Studien zur Musikwissenschaft 49. Bd., Festschrift Leopold M. Kantner zum 70. Geburtstag (2002), pp. 65-98), Kenneth Birkin writes that the first performance was conducted by Franz Schalk in 1905. But he also writes that the next performance did not take place until James Judd conducted the Halle Orchestra and Choir it in September of 1992. The Musikverein lists no performance between 1950 and 2009, but the Konzerthaus on-line archive does tell us about the above-mentioned Mackerras performance (May 3rd, 1986, with the ORF-RSO, the State Opera Chorus, Anne Howells, Robert Tear, and Thomas Hampson.) This would bring us to six performances in Vienna in total, so far. This can actually be confirmed with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s online archive. The performance took place on November 16th at the Musikverein with Rosa Stwertka, Felix Senius, and Richard Mayr as soloists, and the Singverein. This was conducted in the German translation of Julius Buths.


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