The dream of Gerontius, the Mass in B minor by Bach and Nathan Laube at the Proms

The dream of Gerontius, the Mass in B minor by Bach and Nathan Laube at the Proms

The dream of Gerontius, the Mass in B minor by Bach and Nathan Laube at the Proms

Wrapped in enough gold lame to light up anyone’s darkness, American mezzo-soprano star Jamie Barton turns out to be the kind of supernatural being a newly dead soul might hope to encounter as they enter purgatory. This place of atonement is very present in that of Elgar Geronzio’s dream (1900), lyric settings by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which was given a truly out of this world performance at the Proms on Wednesday. The massed forces of the Manchester Halle Choir and the London Philharmonic Choir, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner, had perfected every embarrassing detail of this long and demanding work. The British tenor Allan Clayton sang Gerontius, the dying man of the title who finds eternity. British bass James Platt was Priest / Angel of the Agony, comforter and inspiration. Barton sang the angel.

First performed in Birmingham Town Hall, Gerontius he has always aroused extreme reactions, initially to his Roman Catholicism in a predominantly Anglican country, now because his religiosity, with all the resonance of that word, is too much for some. The work is divided into two irregular halves, the first a deathbed scene, the second a world of mushy angels and demons. By resisting exaggeration or rhetoric, Gardner and his forces melted Elgar’s ambitious soundscape and created a comforting and exciting unity.

Clayton, voice melted, each audible word, musically indestructible, created a wide-eyed sense of anxiety that yielded to peace (after being courteously carried high over a choir of celestial LPO brass, crashing cymbals and grand drum). Barton’s angel, sung with luminous power, had both gravity and humanity. The two choirs, formed by Neville Creed (London Philharmonic) and Matthew Hamilton (Hallé), were experienced, flexible and powerful. “I wrote it inside myself,” Elgar wrote to a friend. These artists let out “the inner” in their brilliant account.

In this week of choral epics, an attentive crowd of Proms filled the hall on Bank Holiday Monday for by Bach Mass in B minor, performed by the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted from the harpsichord by John Butt. Enigmatic in scope and out of scale in size for liturgical use, this heavenly masterpiece poses many questions, of which how many performers and how fast it should go are only the most direct. Butt, a leading Bach scholar and performer, has the wisdom to face them, even if the answers can never be absolute, especially in a place like the Royal Albert Hall, where good decisions can turn into experiments that don’t quite work. .

With the choir on one side of the orchestra, balance was an issue everywhere. The woods were mostly doubled, creating a soft sonic coloration, especially from Lisa Beznosiuk’s lead flute, but leaving the strings pale in comparison. Of the vocal soloists, all good singers, only the countertenor Iestyn Davies projected with the required force. The spirituality of the work, as well as its astonishing harmonic drama, revolves around the increasingly obscured Crucifix. These usually experienced interpreters, in a different space, could very well have dragged the more secular listener into the mysteries of the mass, human or divine. Here, the performance remained cold and distant. We may notice these oddities but still enjoy the chance to hear Bach’s majestic work. Otherwise we might as well stick to Spotify.

The American organist Nathan Laube ran into trouble at her Sunday morning solo prom on Albert Hall’s “Voice of Jupiter” organ (all 9,999 pipes), when a faulty key got stuck at the end of César Franck’s piece Great symphonic piece. Laube handles it with calm good humor until it is repaired, then executes one of Charles-Valentin Alkan’s ferocious Grands préludes (# 10: Joking). In this 19th-century recital of virtuoso operas, Laube’s transcription of Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor was the crown. From quiet and delicate to tremendously noisy, Laube bewitched us for nearly 40 minutes. An entire orchestra could hardly match the decibels that roared from this powerful instrument.

On the contrary, that of Tangram Our silence is your silence, later the same day, he asked us to embrace the stillness. This new musical collective, which celebrates but is not limited to Chinese cultures, has just been announced as associate artist of the London Symphony Orchestra. Combining live video and music, the 75-minute program ran seamlessly, opening with whispered repetitions of A dust over time (2020) by Huang Ruo and interspersed with Silent songs by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, sung by soprano Inna Husieva.

Reylon Yount (AKA Mantawoman) did his own take on John Cage’s 4′33 ″, which involved some canine grunts from underneath the yangqin (a hammered dulcimer). In a note to the program, Yount cited Cage’s outlook on life, in which the composer said, “Get out of whatever cage you’re in.” Let’s slam the bars and try.

Star ratings (out of five)
Geronzio’s dream
★★★★★
Bach Mass in B Minor
★★★
Organ recital by Nathan Laube
★★★★
Tangram: Our silence is your silence
★★★

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