LSO/Hickox - Barbican, 3 June 2007
Elgar - The Dream of Gerontius
The prelude seemed a little anaemic in the moment - only later did I realise Hickox had probably deliberately underplayed it to leave himself somewhere to go later. But when Philip Langridge rose to deliver his first lines the performance really took off. Would it be tasteless to say he's great at dying? His opening line 'I am near to death' combined a breathtaking honesty, vulnerability and pathos. And it's all in the voice: on the platform he's one of the least physically expressive singers I've seen, no playing to the back rows, yet every nuance of emotion is perfectly framed. It was announced before the concert that he was recovering from flu, though a touch of underprojection in places was the only trace of this. Any suspicion that his illness was providing a crafty boost to his portrayal of the dying Gerontius disappeared in Part 2, where he transitioned immaculately to the required luminous serenity. The text can read rather over-sentimentally, but Langridge never judges it, and so his portrayal is sincere and heartfelt, never cloying.
The other soloists, Anna Larsson and Peter Coleman-Wright, measured up to Langridge's high standards. Anna Larsson is a rare true contralto, warm and dusky. Maybe a surprise choice for a part that usually goes to a mezzo, but it worked brilliantly. Her Angel simply glowed, and if her diction suffered slightly at the expense of her immaculate line, it was no great loss. I was equally impressed with her Geneviève in last year's Salzburg Osterfest Pelléas et Mélisande, and I really hope someone in London can find her something else to do here as soon as possible. Incidentally, she wore the most fabulous and unusual frock, a sort of white brocade robe with beaded trim over a scarlet plissé gown. And silver heels, despite being about six foot tall to begin with (yay! go for it Anna!)
Peter Coleman-Wright was brave to squeeze this into the middle of his Death in Venice run at the Coliseum, and gave a faultless performance, his deep rich baritone suiting both the Priest and 'bass' second Angel part. And the London Symphony Chorus handled the varied demands of the choral parts immaculately, sounding like a different choir each time they popped up.
It was fascinating watching Hickox at work - his intimacy with the score marked by his mouthing of just about every word of the very long text. All of Elgar's remarkable orchestral colouration was brought out, and he shaped the work (without an interval) tastefully, accentuating the drama without yielding to sentimentality. I think it's lack of restraint in this area which turns so many people off Elgar - it certainly did me for the longest time - but Hickox proved it can be done properly. (Though I still have a fondness for the Venetian Snares approach........)