Wednesday 25 November 2009

OAE's Dream of Gerontius

The problem with period performance is that we do not always have period voices to go with the period instrumental performances. In early music this can be fudged, to a certain extent, because we don't actually know what the singers sounded like. But in Baroque opera there is no getting away from the fact that Handel, Hasse, Vivaldi et al wrote for some of the greatest voices of the day. And if the greatest voices of our day sing this repertoire then compromises have to be made, often in terms of vibrato etc.

When it comes to Elgar things are both more and less complicated. We have recordings to supplement the writings and musical manuals, so that we know a great deal about the types of sound produced and techniques used. But the singers of the day used rather different techniques, with generally a narrower focus in the voice and a tighter control of vibrato.

As a sample of what this means, consider RVW's Serenade to Music. It was recorded by the original singers, most of whom were quite mature when the recording was made. But nowadays the work is performed with younger singers, partly because when opera singers mature their voices often develop far more significant vibrato than their forebears; that this is not a hard and fast rule is indicated by the fact that one of the basses on the original recording has a very, very intrusive vibrato.

But it is not just vibrato and width focus which are a concern, there is also the issue of the use of portamento as ornament, a technique which is generally anathema to modern singing techniques, partly I think because combined with a profound vibrato it can sound rather as if the singer has no idea where the destination note is and is simply sliding up to it.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened to the magical opening of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Festival Hall last night (24/11/2009) in a performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Jeremy Skidmore, with the Ex Cathedra XL Anniversary Choir and Susan Bickley, Adrian Thompson and Roderick Williams as soloists. Skidmore and the OAE gave us a truly magical account of the prelude, with a tone quality which took me back to those early Elgar recordings. The strings used vibrato sparingly, and the balance was more in favour of the wind; the wind and brass played on period instruments which had differences in timbre to their modern counterparts. The whole orchestral sound felt far less uniformly homogeneous than a modern group, perhaps because it was not founded on the base a warm, all-encompassing vibrato-led string tone.

When Adrian Thompson came in, it became apparent that whilst he was a willing participant in the experiment, his voice and technique was slightly at odds to the prevailing style. Thompson is mainly known in the UK as a character tenor, but his repertoire stretches to Loge and bigger roles. When singing quietly he gave is beautifully intense tone, but in the bigger moments, when his voice opened up, his vibrato became very pronounced. If he had been singing with the London Symphony Orchestra this would not have been too disturbing (when I heard David Rendall in the role with the LSO his notable vibrato was quite acceptable in the context). But it WAS noticeable given that the orchestra were using it sparingly. Hence my thoughts about period voices. But the volume that the orchestra produced was noticeably less than a modern orchestra and without the extensive vibrato, the string tone died quicker. So this meant that Thompson was able to sing much more of the piece in his lighter, more concentrated tones. And he did give us some discreet use of portamento.

At the big moments,I could not rid myself of the thought that Thompson's expression was applied to his voice, rather than done via the voice. So that moments like Sanctus fortis did not count for as much as when done by, say, Richard Lewis.

Roderick Williams was a notable presence as the bass soloist, singing in his familiar warm, rich tones, though you felt his performance would have been pretty much the same had he sung the role with the LSO. Though given his musicality, this was no bad thing.

As the Angel, Susan Bickley had to step in at the very last moment as the planned singer (Anna Stephany) was ill. Inevitably Bickley's performance was a little more understated and more careful than it might have been in regular circumstances. It was noticeable how the singer used the transparency of the orchestra to sing passages in far quieter manner than she otherwise might have done; the moments when she did let go were made all the more climactic. Bickley's performance was beautifully musical and concentrated.

Skidmore used a choir of just 100 singers; small for a regular Gerontius, but they made a good impression here. Using a slightly smaller group, with a preponderance of young voices, meant that we got a cleaner, more disciplined sound which was focussed and tidy in a way which is harder with a larger group. That said, there was no loss of power at the climaxes, notably in Praise to the Holiest. But the climaxes were not simply about noise, you noticed far more Elgar's attention to orchestration and timbres. The performance seem somehow far more subtle than a modern one, with blazing climaxes.

In the programme book, there were a series of interviews with orchestra personnel describing the instruments that they were playing on; instruments which are both similar too and different from those of modern orchestras. Notably amongst the instruments used were Denis Brain's horn and Elgar's own Trombone!

I must confess to not being as moved as I have been in some performances of Gerontius. There again, the most moving performance of the title role that I have heard was when Richard Lewis sang it with the LPO with Bernard Haitink conducting. Lewis was in his 70's and had just had both his hips replaced, his tone quality was what it was, but you felt that he lived and breathed the part. When He sang Sanctus fortis the expression was all in the voice, not applied. And when he opened Act 2 (I went to sleep and now I am refreshed) you felt he meant it. Also notable about that performance, the harpist was Sidonie Goosens who had actually played under Elgar!

The Dream of Gerontius is a difficult work to get right, and, given the fact that period performances of the work are extremely rare, we should regard this as a work in progress. Skidmore and his forces got so many things right, particularly the magical timbres and flexibility of the orchestra, and the beauty of the choral tone. So I hope that we can look forward to further experiments and a recording at some point.

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