Daniel Barenboim conducts Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”

14 Jan 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim, Anna Larsson, Ian Storey, Kwangchoul Youn, Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Edward Elgar
    The Dream of Gerontius, op. 63 (101 min.)

    Anna Larsson Mezzo-Soprano, Ian Storey Tenor, Kwangchoul Youn Bass, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Simon Halsey on Edward Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” (16 min.)

As the BBC once said in the introduction to a concert, Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius is seen in Great Britain as a “national monument”. While the work enjoys nearly the same esteem as Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah in its native land, almost every performance abroad is seen as a rediscovery. And it is to such that the Berliner Philharmoniker and conductor Daniel Barenboim invite you with this concert.

To make The Dream of Gerontius comprehensible to audiences, comparisons are often drawn – but these only partially go to the core of the work. Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration is comparable, according to some: As with Elgar, it is about someone dying who ultimately achieves heavenly bliss, but in contrast to Strauss, it is not about fighting and heroism, but a spiritual vision of the transition to the afterlife.

Parallels are also often drawn to Wagner’s music, which Elgar revered. The through-composed structure is doubtlessly inspired by Wagner in that there is no division into arias and choruses. And there are also some elements reminiscent of Parsifal. Overall, however, The Dream of Gerontius is a completely independent composition with an individual musical language and a penetrating power of faith. One of the first continental Europeans who recognised the value of the oratorio was, incidentally, Richard Strauss, who after a performance, praised Elgar as “the first English progressive musician”.

“... a strange refreshment ...”

Edward Elgar’s Oratorio The Dream of Gerontius

A Vision of Death and the Afterlife

Praying, dreaming, dying: a soul is divested of its earthly covering and awakens in the world of spirit. Led by an angel he passes by the demons assembled at the judgement court and approaches the throne of God. Intercession by the Angel of the Agony brings him a lenient judgement. His Soul is gently lowered by the Angel into the waters of Purgatory to await its reawakening. Nearly 100 minutes of music for a story that takes place outside of time and space.

Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, composed in 1900 and first performed that year in Birmingham under the great Austrian conductor Hans Richter, is the setting of a poem by John Henry Cardinal Newman. Much-loved and performed in Britain and, to a lesser extent, other English-speaking countries, Gerontius in this country is rarely given except by choral societies, even though the first German performance (a “most excellent interpretation”, wrote the correspondent from the Times of London) took place only a year after the under-rehearsed, nearly disastrous Birmingham premiere – sung in German translation and conducted by Julius Buth, in Düsseldorf, the birthplace of Elgar’s publisher and closest friend A. J. Jaeger. In 1902, another performance in that city was enthusiastically acclaimed by Richard Strauss and, the same year, Gerontius was first performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker,under the baton of Ferruccio Busoni.

The Composer and his Life

Elgar, generally considered one of the most English of all English composers, always felt himself to be an outsider. Being a Roman Catholic was a source of tension in a staunchly Protestant land, and being an artist was something he felt a need to suppress in the staid social establishment of his provincial upbringing. Nevertheless, his wife, a general’s daughter, went over the Roman faith before the birth of their son, even though Elgar’s Protestant father, a music dealer in Worcester and organist at that city’s St. George’s Roman Catholic Church, officially converted to Catholicism only on his deathbed. Edward helped out his father in the shop and in church, where, with little formal training, he absorbed whatever he could and soon became proficient on the piano, organ and bassoon as well as on the violin (which he played in the Worcester Festival, including under Dvořák) and as a violin teacher and conductor of church and workers’ choirs.

Elgar wrote his great choral works for festivals. The Dream of Gerontius and his subsequent oratorios The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906) as well as the ode The Music Makers (1912) were all composed for the Birmingham Triennial Festival, whose earlier commissions had included Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Elgar’s steady production of monumental works ended abruptly, however, with the death of his wife in 1920. A few years later he began a major series of recordings, conducting his own works for HMV, but even with the encouragement in 1932 of his friend George Bernard Shaw, he was unable to complete the composition of his Third Symphony, which remained fragmentary at his death two years later.

The Dream, a Dying

Newman’s epic poem The Dream of Gerontius appeared in 1865 and found great favour even in non-Catholic circles. Elgar received a copy in 1889, probably as a wedding present, although he had first read the poem much earlier and for many years pondered how he might set it to music. Then in 1900, he completed the huge score of his oratorio within a few months. He had prepared the libretto himself, making substantial cuts in the text, especially the second part, after discussions with Fr. Richard Bellasis, trustee of Cardinal Newman’s literary estate. The remarkable rigour of Elgar’s composition overcomes any lack of external drama and makes the difficult subject matter accessible to all listeners. Part I, just over half an hour in length and introduced by a thematically concentrated orchestral prelude in D major/minor, is taken up with Gerontius’s prayers, dreams and death, culminating in the Priest sending his Soul on its way to Heaven. Gentle exultation is the basic tone of Part II, lasting roughly an hour, in which the Soul is accompanied by the Angel on its final journey.

The belief that all things that decay are “only a likeness” (Goethe), all things earthly only a trial for departing from and entering the spiritual world, has seldom been set to music as potently yet serenely as in this work. Even the immediate fear of physical death that briefly afflicts Gerontius at the end of Part I is depicted with comparative discretion by the orchestra. The string complement, subdivided into 16 parts, is initially held down to pppp until the harmony takes on an unusual chromatic colouring, underscoring the dying man’s struggle. At once, the chorus cries out “Rescue him, O Lord” and then it too is magically divided: a semi-chorus, supported by the organ, prays for Gerontius; it is answered by the larger chorus with melismatic Amens. In Part II, Elgar divides the chorus into Demons, Angels, Souls in Purgatory and praying “Voices on Earth”.

Although The Dream of Gerontius is primarily conceived as a choral work, it contains a highly demanding solo part, one requiring great stamina: the tenor, who portrays Gerontius in Part I and his Soul in Part II. He is present over long stretches of the work and must stand up to a large ensemble throughout an extremely wide and differentiated range of dynamics, mostly restrained. Alongside him is the solo bass embodying the Priest praying for Gerontius in Part I and the Angel of the Agony praying for his Soul in Part II. When Gerontius awakens in the second part and, against gently pulsating strings, feels “a strange refreshment”, a guiding Angel (mezzo-soprano) appears and enters into a dialogue in recitative with the Soul that forms the framework of Part II upon which the successive otherworldly phases unfold.

The Dream of Gerontius has often been compared with Wagner’s Parsifal, which surely says more about the inspiration of Elgar’s work than its execution. As a detailed compositional vision of the hereafter – apart from settings of the Requiem – Gerontius is a musical rarity. Perhaps the most astonishing exception to that assertion was provided by Gustav Mahler, whose Fourth Symphony, ending with the song Das himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life), was composed at the same time as but completely independently of Gerontius. At first glance, no work could seem farther removed from Elgar’s oratorio than this symphony in which Mahler makes use of such far-flung elements as sleighbells and a mistuned violin. The apparent irony of the cheerful hereafter conjured up in Mahler’s finale with soprano solo, based on a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, also seems worlds away from the solemn gravity of Cardinal Newman and Elgar. In fact, the opposite is true. It was by no means the intention of Mahler, who had converted to Catholicism only three years before, to poke fun at the eschatology of his newly acquired faith. Mahler completed the draft score of his Fourth on 6 August 1900, exactly two months after Elgar wrote the final bar of Gerontius. The last lines set by Mahler in the symphony read: “Die englischen Stimmen / Ermuntern die Sinnen, / Dass alles für Freuden erwacht” (“The angelic voices / delight the senses, / for all things awake to joy.” Elgar at the end of Gerontius has the Angel sing: “Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow; … And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.” Both works then die away in the major as softly as possible – these two great visionaries leave the final awakening to us listeners.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on an artistic partnership lasting forty-five years. It was as a pianist that Barenboim made his debut with the orchestra under the direction of Pierre Boulez in June 1964. He first conducted the orchestra five years later. At his most recent appearance in April 2010 he conducted works by Brahms, Wagner, and Elgar. As soloist, he performed the two Chopin Piano Concertos with the orchestra in October 2010 (concductor: Asher Fisher).

Daniel Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires in 1942 but moved to Israel with his parents ten years later. His first piano teacher was his mother, followed by his father. He was ten when he made his professional debut in Vienna and Rome, and it was not long before he was undertaking international tours. He made his conducting debut in London in 1967 and since then has appeared with leading orchestras throughout Europe and the United States. The most important stages in his career to date have been as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris from 1975 to 1989, as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1991 to 2006 and as general music director of Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden since 1992. In the autumn of 2002 the Berlin Staatskapelle appointed him principal conductor for life. Barenboim has additionally appeared as a guest conductor at many international festivals, including the Bayreuth Festival, where he conducted a number of important productions every year from 1981 to 1999. Since the start of the 2007/08 season he has also worked closely with La Scala, Milan, in the role of Maestro Scaligero and since December 2011 as their Music Director.

In 1999 Barenboim and the Palestinian writer Edward Said set up the West-Eastern Divan Workshop, which every summer brings together young musicians from Israel and the Arab countries in order that the shared experience of communal music-making may encourage dialogue between the different cultures of the Middle East. In 2002 Barenboim and Said received the Príncipe de Asturias Prize for their peace efforts in fostering international understanding. Among other awards that Daniel Barenboim has received are the Großes Verdienstkreuz of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize; he was named »Grand officier dans l’ordre national de la Légion d’honneur« in France and »Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire«.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; recently their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. The choir has been a partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Rundfunkchor Berlin last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2011 performing Poulenc’s Gloria, conducted by Nicola Luisotti.

Kwangchul Youn received his musical training in his native South Korea as well as in Sofia and Berlin. A winner of several competitions, he gave his debut in 1988 in Seoul, and was an ensemble member at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin from the 1993/94 season until 2004. Since then, engagements have taken him to the major opera houses, such as those in Vienna, Munich, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Hamburg, London, Paris, Barcelona, Buenos Aires and New York. Kwangchul Youn’s repertoire includes stage works by Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Gounod, Verdi, Strauss and, in particular, Richard Wagner. The bass performs at prestigious festivals (such as Bayreuth, Ludwigsburg and Salzburg) and also enjoys international success on the concert stage. In addition, he regularly gives recitals with his regular accompanist Helmut Oertel. Kwangchul Youn performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in May 2002 in the bass role of Mozart’s Requiem under the baton of Daniel Barenboim; his most recent Berlin concerts with the orchestra were in mid-March 2007 with three performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, conducted by Bernard Haitink. Since 2009, Youn Kwangchoul has been a professor at the College of Music at Seoul National University.

Ian Storey is from Chilton in the English county of Durham. He first studied furniture design at the University of Loughborough before training as a singer in New Zealand and London (including at the National Opera Studio), Milan and Trieste. His stage career began in 1991 at Opera East as the Male Chorus in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Since then, Ian Storey has developed a broad repertoire which, in addition to the standard works of the 19th and 20th century from Bizet to Shostakovich, also includes rarely-heard operas such as The Olympians by Arthur Bliss and A Tale of Two Cities by Arthur Benjamin. Engagements have taken the tenor not only to the major British opera companies, but also to La Scala in Milan, Zurich Opera, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Frankfurt Opera, the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, the Washington National Opera and, in Berlin, to the Deutsche Oper and the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater. In addition, he has also performed at major festivals such as those at Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, St Gallen and Torre del Lago. In addition to his opera commitments, the artist is also invited to perform as a concert soloist with leading symphony orchestras; this will be his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In 2008, Ian Storey was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) by Loughborough University, and is the official representative of the English county of Herefordshire.

The Swedish singer Anna Larsson has established herself on the opera stage and in the concert hall as one of the most renowned altos internationally. Her repertoire ranges from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the great masses of Bach and Beethoven, Verdi’s Requiem and the vocal-symphonic works of Brahms and Mahler, to Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah).As an opera singer, Anna Larsson focuses on roles in the music dramas of Richard Wagner in which she has appeared at theatres such as the Royal Opera houses in Copenhagen and Stockholm, the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the state opera houses in Vienna, Munich and Berlin and at festivals including Salzburg, Florence and Aix-en-Provence. This season, she sings Erda in Das Rheingold at the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater in Berlin under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. The artist regularly performs with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in the soprano part in Mahler’s Second Symphony (conducted by Claudio Abbado) during a European tour by the orchestra in October 1997; she most recently performed with the orchestra in Berlin as Erda in Wagner’s Rheingold conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in mid-June 2006. Anna Larsson, who is also a passionate performer of lieder, was named Royal Court Singer by King Carl XVI Gustaf in 2010. In summer 2011 she opened her own concert hall Vattnäs Konsertlada near Mora (Sweden).

Deutsche GrammophonDaniel Barenboim appears by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.

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