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Roberto GERHARD (1896-1970)
The Plague for speaker, chorus and orchestra (1963-4) [44.04]
Alec McCowen (speaker)
National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Washington DC/Antal Dorati
rec. Constitution Hall, Washington D.C., 11 May 1973. ADD
first released as Decca Headline HEAD 6, 1974.
EXPLORE EXP 0005 [44.04]

 

 

This is the first CD release featuring this recording. It preserves the world premiere recording of Gerhard's unrepentantly dodecaphonic melodrama based on the novella by Albert Camus in an English translation by Stuart Gilbert. The story is of the outbreak of plague in the town of Oran in the 1940s. It arrives, it strikes terror, it kills and it departs. It may return again. As conductor Dorati has said: "The plague is all diseases of the mind, every dictatorship, every war, and there is no real freedom as long as there are pestilences. The rats may come again to the happy city. This is the message."

Like Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, Pettersson’s Seventh Symphony and Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers this piece retains the power to shock and horrify. In some enigmatic way the horror is accentuated by the dispassionate delivery of the speaker, a local doctor – in this case the Shakespearean actor, Alec McCowen. This was the way Gerhard wanted it. The reported events carry the impact; there is no need for the gloss of oratory. There is nothing of the irresistibly high-flown approach you hear in Bliss’s Morning Heroes. Listen in tr. 8 to the coldly antiseptic description of the child's death – an almost unbearably vivid piece of rapportage.

Despite the pervasive minatory atmosphere there are some moments of overcast humour usually carried by the orchestra. An example can be heard early on when McCowen first describes the emerging rats. One he singles out for close observation. The rat falls on its side dead. The orchestra in a witty piece of onomatopoeia vividly describes that small fall. There are many coups de théâtre of this sort from the orchestra. From the eloquence of the miniature we turn to eruptive power in the Schoenbergian howling of the orchestra and chorus. In track 2 we hear the chatter of ‘the rats, the rats’ and explosive shrieks and howls, the drum rolls and the cymbal crash. Awed horror is evoked in the gradually petered out description of the line of tram cars full of corpses and flowers (tr. 7). In tr. 3 there is the emulation of a siren and the quiet before outbreak seems to have ended. Also remarkable are the braying ‘sunrise’ brass figures and the shuddering xylophone figuration. The vocal writing around 9:32 onwards in tr. 7 is similar to the macabre voice parts in Walton’s Belshazzar's Feast when the disembodied fingers begin to write on the palace wall. In tr. 9 the reappearance of the rats is marked by a torrent of words shouted and chattered out by the choir all together. Even in the outbreak of joy that follows the end of the infestation the dissonant overlay makes the jubilation sound panicked, hysterical and awed. The grim message is that behind the transient joy is the reality that the plague bacillus is never dead but lies dormant for decades only to rise again when it chooses.

The text is in English here and is printed in full in the booklet. It is sung by a choir with a noticeable American accent while McCowen’s voice is clear and unaffected.

The Plague was premiered by Dorati in April 1964 at the Royal Festival Hall in London when the speaker was Stephen Murray with the BBC Symphony and Chorus. Dorati continued to champion The Plague. I also have a tape of a broadcast from 17 April 1982 in which he conducted the work with the BBC orchestra and the Southend Festival Chorus. The speaker was Michael Rippon.

Of course there have been other recordings though they are not numerous. The one most likely to be known is Edmon Colomer’s Spanish National Youth Orchestra version on Disques Montaigne. There the speaker is the actor the late Michael Lonsdale who has appeared in The Day of the Jackal and most recently in Ronin.

It is worth noting that Gerhard's felt a special sympathy for the writings of Camus and picked away at writing an opera founded on Camus’s first novel, The Stranger. It was never completed.

The CD booklet contains the composer’s notes in English, French and German and sung/spoken text in English.

So there we have it: a grim classic of the twelve-tone repertoire - rarely encountered and superbly done and documented here.

Rob Barnett

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