ENDNOTES – Were you not entertained?
The Royal Albert Hall, March 16, 2014, Sir Edward Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius, based on the poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, Diana Moore (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Jacques Imbrailo (bass-baritone), bass singer (unscheduled and unidentified), choirs from St Paul’s Girl’s School, City of London Choir, Guilford Choral Society, Leicester Philharmonic Choir
Leslie Jones awakes in music heaven
Judging from some of the forthcoming events – Gladiator (the film score), The Sound of Music (the film), Peter Andre, Julio Iglesias and Rick Wakeman, the “caped crusader” of rock, in concert, the Albert Hall is not always a bastion of high culture. We were also slightly put off by the description of Elgar’s The Dream (as Sir John Barbirolli always called it) as one of “The Great Classics”. Something of a statement of the obvious for a work that Elgar, arguably England’s finest composer, him-self considered “the best of me”. Yet we need not have feared. This proved to be a fine performance.
What, someone recently wondered, do you give the man, Jose Mourinho, who already has everything on his birthday? In the case of Hilary Davan Wetton, a pupil of Sir Adrian Boult, you invite him to conduct one of his favourite pieces on his 70th name day. But before he could begin, we had to endure a tiresome eulogy of the conductor by a member of one of the attendant choirs. The individual in question should be told that the G in Gerontius is muted/soft.
Unhappily, the acoustic in this immense space continues to confound. The massed ranks of the choirs high up in the auditorium were perfectly audible, likewise the fine playing of the orchestra (although the moment where Gerontius “enters into the veilèd presence of …God” was strangely anti-climactic). But at times the voices of the solo artists on the platform below, through no fault of their own, went missing in the limitless void. This was particularly regrettable in the usually moving passage where the Priest, baritone Jacques Imbrailo, pronounces the ‘Proficiscere’ (‘Go forth upon they journey, Christian soul…’). In this venue, when orchestra and solo artist compete for attention, as it were, the outcome is never in question.
We have it on good authority that soprano Diana Moore, resplendent in a red dress but cruelly characterised as a drag queen by my louche companion was nearly forced by illness to pull out of this event. Truth to tell, she performed quite admirably. Somewhere in the ether, the shade of Janet Baker was surely listening and approving.
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London, March 17, 2014: Michael Tippett, A Child of our Time, London Concert Choir, City of London Sinfonia conducted by Mark Forkgen, Erica Eloff (soprano), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano), Michael Bracegirdle (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (bass)
According to critic Clive James, referring to the five Negro spirituals in the secular oratorio A Child of our Time*, (he was writing in 1977, so it was still permissible to use the N word), “most of the substance in the music [is] second-hand”. Clive James had a point. Yet he overlooked the fact that Tippett (another Boult protégé) still had to integrate these timeless and universal songs into his composition where they perform a cathartic and redemptive function. The songs in question also break up the recitative into more digestible portions.
Tippett himself wrote the somewhat turgid libretto after his friend T S Eliot, perhaps wisely, pulled out. He (Tippett) was apparently influenced by Jungian and Trotskyist thinking at this juncture and the text has some infelicitous phrases, such as “Pogroms in the East, lynching in the West”, or “When shall the usurers’ city cease, And famine depart from the fruitful land?” or again, “I have no money for my bread; I have no gift for my love.” The passé language (the work was composed between 1939 and 1941) takes us back to the misbegotten world of the Left Book Club, the front organisation and the Peace Pledge Union.
In this performance, given in the intimate space of the Queen Elizabeth Hall (known in the music trade as the “vanity box” because of its flattering acoustic) the audience was both attentive and appreciative. It would perhaps be uncharitable to single out any of the soloists, so here goes. Only the tenor and soprano sing Steal Away to Jesus and Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Lord and they both gave memorable performances of these beautifully orchestrated and deceptively simple songs. And South African soprano Erica Eloff was quite superb once again in O, by and by. I usually cry at some point in the piece. This evening was no exception.
*The child in question was Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen year old Polish Jew. On November 7, 1938, he assassinated the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath at the German Embassy in Paris, sparking off the Kristallnacht
Leslie Jones, March 2014
Dr Leslie Jones is Deputy editor of QR