BRAMWELL TOVEY CHALLENGES ELGAR’S DREAM OF GERONTIUS AND SHOSTAKOVICH’S TENTH

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor), Susan Platts (mezzo-soprano), Nathan Berg (baritone), UBC University Singers & Choral Union (dir. Graeme Langager), VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, Orpheum, November 6. 2017.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 and Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto: Dame Evelyn Glennie (percussion), VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, Orpheum, October 28, 2017.

 Photos Courtesy Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Photos Courtesy Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

 Photos Courtesy Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

In his last year as Music Director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, it is only natural that Bramwell Tovey would want to place his stamp on great works that he had not performed in many years or at all. While one would not expect finished perfection under such circumstances, the maestro’s recent concerts featuring Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony turned out both interesting and substantial. The Elgar built with strength to its conclusion, with the soloists putting forward a fine effort and the large, 150-strong UBC Chorus securing the most cohesive and inspired output I have yet seen from them. The quality of the orchestral playing was the outstanding feature of the earlier performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, even if the interpretation might be seen to err on the straightforward side. This is only the beginning of the celebration: there is a Bruckner’s Ninth coming in the spring and much of May and June 2018 pays homage to the conductor’s exploits too.  

It is every British conductor’s dream to perform Gerontius.  The only difficulty is that the stakes are high. Even with fine readings in more recent years by Sir Simon Rattle, Richard Hickox and Sir Andrew Davis, a long shadow reaches back more than usual to the classic performances of Sir Malcom Sargent, Sir John Barbirolli, and Sir Adrian Boult.  Here we find the sterling renderings of the title role by Heddle Nash and Richard Lewis, and the wonderful Angel of Dame Janet Baker.

American Anthony Dean Griffey, the Gerontius on this occasion, cultivates a nice lyrical fabric in his voice and enunciates with eloquence; his considered restraint and sense of style could not help but be an asset in negotiating the line of his extended part. Yet I still did not think the tenor climbed into his role completely: his lack of dramatic involvement and ardour at points proved a limitation in Part I of the work. There is a ‘personal’ dimension that must be communicated, and an almost operatic richness of feeling that should arise as the singer pushes ‘extremities’, not least in ‘Sanctus Fortis’. Maestro Tovey partly made up for this reticence by showing great enthusiasm for the music’s climaxes, drawing strong energy from the orchestra and commanding playing from the brass. Still, some of the more contemplative moments seemed under-characterized; the conductor did not always sit with the darker hues of the music and enshrine them with Elgarian magic. What turned out to be a striking plus was the sensitive and accomplished contribution of Graeme Langager’s UBC Chorus, both in the more restrained moments early on and in its cohesive, elemental attack in ‘Go forth…’ at the end of Part I: I enjoyed baritone Nathan Berg’s humanly warm contribution at the end too.

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Part II seemed to have a greater natural involvement with the music, and built more convincingly. The strings were typically softer and more expressive, while a more coaxing sense of musical space was present. Mezzo Susan Platts gave a good account of the Angel, with clean enunciation, but she was sometimes too careful – not quite free or radiant enough. Griffey did not find enough vulnerability at the beginning, but he seemed to reveal more of himself later when singing alongside Platts. While Nathan Berg’s expressive reach continued to impress, it was again the choir that really distinguished itself, especially in the powerful hubbub of the judgement sequence. The orchestra was outstanding here too. The farewell ending – as Gerontius enters Purgatory – established particularly fine repose in the singing and strong control of dynamics within the orchestra, building with the right sense of inevitability to the final ‘Amen’.  While the interpretation is doubtlessly still a work in progress, I fully enjoyed it. Many of the right dramatic features were in place – and I really cannot say enough about the choral contribution. One interesting reaction overheard from patrons at the end of the concert was that the text in Part II was not something they warmed to.  Perhaps it is just too darkly religious for this age.

One often thinks of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony (1953) as his greatest orchestral composition. At least conjecturally, it represents the composer freed from Stalin, able to convey his own pain and uncertainty in a more subtle and personal way than previously. Thus, the symphony differs from Nos. 5 and 8, since there is no longer a pressing need to convey epic Soviet struggle; it also differs from the subsequent Nos. 11 and 12 in its avoidance of overtly cinematic development. In the hands of distinguished historical interpreters (Evgeny Svetlanov, Maxim Shostakovich, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, to name a few), the key to the work is its mood: the work opens slowly from very somber half lights, followed by stark pronouncements from the winds; a grey bleakness then eventually gives way to seething orchestral outbursts that punctuate the terrain, but only fleetingly, before retreating back to the austere landscape. The whiplash, cutting Scherzo places the pain more out front, and then comes the strangely withdrawn Allegretto, with its enigmatic little jig that suggests the haunting spectres of Shostakovich’s inner world (echoed more explicitly in his late quartets). The finale also has its seething moments at the start, but the question remains: What does the innocent little march tune signify: unalloyed or merely artificial freedom?

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Bramwell Tovey’s performance certainly offered a corrective to speculation on the meaning of the symphony. At the opening, the shadowy lower strings did not stay for long and gave way to more purposive and confident violins. Relatively quick speeds soon took us to the feeling of genuine struggle as we moved through the first climaxes. But this was more in the nature of an epic struggle than a personal one. As luxuriant textures became more pronounced, with more romantic adornment in the shaping and projection of the string lines, we suddenly were back within reach of Symphony No. 5.  Orchestral execution was magnificently glowing throughout – I have rarely heard the strings play with so much unanimity and body – yet the lushness and drama overrode the feeling of inward brooding. A very powerful Scherzo followed, leading to a perceptive, but less withdrawn Allegretto. The finale also proceeded in a more straightforward fashion, ultimately bringing forth a celebratory mode and a keen range of cinematic brilliance. This may not be entirely the way many of us would have envisioned the work but I admired this effort for its consistency of execution. Contrary to our inclinations, Symphony Ten remains unmistakably a reflection of the ‘public’ Shostakovich reluctant to reveal his private secrets.

By way of contrast, this evening also featured Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto (2005), a work that combines tonal experimentation with strong rhythmic acuity, and features the novel idea of the solo percussionist interacting with the percussion section of the orchestra. It gives a leading role to the marimba. Though originally written for Colin Currie, it was the estimable Dame Evelyn Glennie who took over reins here, and her electric precision and athleticism supremely impressed as it always does. As a very eclectic work, I enjoyed its tonal explorations in the quieter moments, venturing from abstract to evocative to even Asian modes, and it was intriguing to see these wedded to the varied rhythmic fervour of the orchestra. The rhythms were particularly jazzy and riveting at the end and gave a fine sweep to the work as a whole. Perhaps I was less clear on what role the episodes of lush string passages and noble brass perorations really played, except possibly to pay homage to Aaron Copland, William Schuman and others, and stamp the work as ‘Made in the USA’ for anyone who might have thought otherwise.

A particularly engrossing set of explorations all told.

 

© Geoffrey Newman 2017