Sunday, November 23, 2008


Midweek at the Opera House is not usual for us. The night was balmy, a moist nor’easter blowing over the harbour. A low fine cloud or mist hung over North Sydney and the office buildings' neons gave the view from the northern foyer a pink-blue wash while further east the empty harbour looked particularly dark.

A good crowd, regrettably not a full house, had come for Wednesday’s The Dream of Gerontius. Even the Minister for Closing Music Academies dared show his face. Was this some calculated attempt to stare down the mounting opposition to shut down the Australian National Academy of Music (on-line petition on home page)? How often does he come to this music? Anyone seen him around in the classical circuit before? Strangely, someone who looked uncannily like Yvonne Kenny sat, bar one, next to him and enjoyed (or suffered, depending) a formal introduction.

All that needs to be said about the performance has already been said. I heard what she heard.

Vladimir Ashkenazy was on top of this. His small tight body wound and gently twisted, intensely concentrated, and he somehow extracted the most expressive, elegant, delicate, fine playing from all the orchestra. Thank you all, and thank goodness this is on tape. It was very beautiful.

The choral forces were big, with good dynamics and tone, and one sublime moment of swelling sopranos over a delayed brass entry. I need to relisten. In the carpark afterwards, K found a credit card, bewildered and lost on the concrete floor. I recognised the owner’s name, a workplace connection I was sure, and rang the card company when we got home, and eventually made phone contact with she of the empty pocket. She was in the choir, and it is always fun to hear it from the inside. Some found Ashkenazy’s beat hard to follow, and she felt some of the ensemble pieces a bit untidy.

Mark Tucker had a pleasant tenor but was up against considerable opposition, particularly in part I, dealing with a cruel hall for voices and facing the larger orchestral forces of the struggles of death. He seemed overparted much of the time. It will be interesting to hear how he records. Recording was a big part of this enterprise it appears, with all rehearsals and both performances taped, and then a patch session. Part II, written now for an out-of-body experience, suited him better, more exposed but less competitive. It is a big sing, suited to a heldentenor voice. Vickers took it in his particularly earnest stride, and the SSO podcast with Glenn Winslade’s 1997 Gerontius (SSO/de Waart) performance shows the way. I also wondered what Philip Langridge would have done with this and have now found this historic DVD, well reviewed with reservations. Which brings me to the Angel.

Any Dream of Gerontius for me must get the Angel right. When I mentioned that Elgar was not one of my desert island composers as I went King Street Fishing to buy the fine (except for the arch, more judgemental, and sharp edged Angel of Felicity Palmer) Hickox version, I was met with disbelief by Sarah’s co-attendant, Peter Google. Anyway, I think I might be revising my list. This Elgar work is now in, with one proviso, the right angel. To date, Yvonne Minton was my angel.

Lilli Paasikivi is now the one. She is the perfect Angel of Understanding. With her beautiful rich middle tones, divine (pun intended) phrasing, and complete ease at the top, she was perfect. Her final “Alleluia Praise be His Name” just before the orchestra plays out the Divine vision and judgement was enough to make the night worthwhile. It was only when she sang could you close your eyes and forget the libretto, her diction exemplary. “I poise thee, and I lower thee, and I hold thee.” I-thee-poise-lower-hold. Her winged Angel dress wafting in a mysterious breese kept me wondering if her feet were always on the ground.

David Wilson-Johnson’s bass baritone was at the disadvantage of his being stuck 'up high', behind and at the level of the acoustic circles, good idea at the time maybe, but his voice rarely had the impact it ought, and I’m sure could, deliver. Why do they do this? Again, the recording will be interesting. I can’t wait for the recording, to take to the desert island, Lilli and me.

I am finding this is taking a lot of listening to. The orchestration is endlessly revealing in its marriage to the text, and I have only started to scratch the surface. On even the most coarse level, the change from Part I to Part II, from earthly death throws to an out-of-body and out-of-time experience is masterly.

And as Newman does not (correctly) attempt to descibe the indescribable, leaving the Angel to tell us what is happening

“..for it is safe,
Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God.
Alleluia, Praise to His Name”

so Elgar follows with his musical expression of the inexpressible, and again, and unlike the more Teutonic composers, refers to the experience, rather than attempt to delineate it. With the instruction that “for one moment, must every instrument exert its fullest force” he leads us to base percussive delivery of aborted and fearful magnificence that one can almost understand the soul’s immediate plea of “Take me away”.

The Angel’s song of farewell, threaded with the final Amen, had even the worst fidgeters now hushed and the performance was greeted with 3 seconds silence.


Anonymous said...

If anyone recorded ABC's broadcast of this performance, and would be willing to share a copy, please send me a note at the address below. I couldn't tape it because I was in the audience. Very nice performance, I had never heard the piece before -- it was fascinating to detect the teases of Enigma Variations.


wanderer said...

-IO, ABC Classics have recorded it; watch their space.