For sheer, unadulterated beauty of orchestral sound, it’s hard to beat the Vienna Philharmonic, as was clear in Mark Pullinger’s review of Prom 73. In different repertoire (Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius) and under a different baton (that of Sir Simon Rattle), the Vienna Phil was just as ravishing and it was accompanied by great vocal beauty from a massive youth choir. But this was one of those times when pure musical beauty isn’t quite enough.

Toby Spence © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Toby Spence
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Dream of Gerontius may be unashamedly Catholic in nature, but the theme it addresses is universal: what goes through the mind of a man as he approaches death and (as he might hope or fear, since none of us can know) at the time that follows it. Elgar weaves a gamut of emotions into the piece: Gerontius is by turns calm, optimistic, terrified, resigned, awestruck, perplexed, supplicating. The Angel is the kindest of guides to Gerontius; to camera, she is ecstatically rapturous.

The orchestral performance was technically close to flawless. That blissful, pearlescent string sound was complemented by pin-sharp ensemble playing, impeccably timed interventions from harp and percussion, elegantly weighted woodwind phrases and the smoothest of brass sections. Balance between different instrument groups was never short of totally satisfying. The “BBC Proms Youth Choir”, an assembly of 400 or so singers from six choirs around the country, proved that the great English choral tradition is alive and well, with fine intonation and timing complemented by enthusiasm and commitment. The performance came together at its best in the passages of calm, blissful rapture, where we could be carried on the waves of lovely sound.

But there are many passages in Gerontius that demand more. The prelude gives opportunities for huge orchestral climaxes, achieved by some remarkable thickening of the orchestration: in this performance, those opportunities were not taken. The Sanctus fortis is a despairing plea for divine mercy: here, it was attractive and well-mannered, with no intimation of terror at the possibility of mercy being withheld. When Toby Spence’s Gerontius sang “I can no more”, it simply didn’t feel like the desperate emanation of a “sense of ruin, which is worse than pain”. Spence has a lovely, attractive timbre, but I didn’t sense any urgency.

Magdalena Kožená © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Magdalena Kožená
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Singing the Angel, Magdalena Kožená also showed deliciously warm timbre, which one could relax and listen to all night, and this is a role that posed her no technical challenges: every note was well under control. Yet my sense was that Kožená wasn’t fully throwing herself into the drama inherent in the work. The Angel is in a state of ecstatic rapture at the thought of fulfilling her mission to bring this worthy soul to redemption, and as with Spence’s performance, I didn’t sense the power latent in those emotions. The third soloist, baritone Roderick Williams, was suitably smooth and stentorian as the priest; he was less convincing as the Angel of the Agony: the plea to Jesu to hasten the souls’ transit through Purgatory had insufficient emotional contrast from the music that preceded it.

The vivacious passage that projected the most power was the chorus of demons as they assemble to gather souls for hell: the young choirs threw themselves into the sometimes cacophonous counterpoint with energy and verve. Other choral passages were harmonious and beautiful, with the soprano voices especially lovely, but it was often difficult to make out words (unsurprisingly for so large a choir) so one was very reliant on the printed page. The best choral passages were the calmer, contemplative ones, with the work’s evanescent ending being particularly effective.

In sum, a performance of The Dream of Gerontius that presented the work as a well crafted gem of  the English choral tradition rather than a dramatic outpouring of human emotion and religious fervour. I would have appreciated a bit more musical risk-taking.