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
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
of the child's death – an almost
unbearably vivid piece of rapportage.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The CD booklet contains
the composer’s notes in English,
French and German and sung/spoken
text in English.
there we have it: a grim classic
of the twelve-tone repertoire -
rarely encountered and superbly
done and documented here.
for £12.50/14.50 postage
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