Only the frostiest of snowmen could have failed to respond to so instinctive and thrilling a performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius as this by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis. Whatever one's minor qualms about technical issues, the rendition was never less than exciting. This was not least thanks to the excellent London Symphony Chorus, who blazed through the massive edifice of Gerontius with spark and polish.
The work is based on a poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman, and describes the dying man Gerontius's prayers of intercession to Mary and the saints and his meeting with God, before being sent to Purgatory to be purified. Elgar's response to the text is one of his most inspired creations, elaborating a musical world based on textural contrast between massive choral and orchestral effects and more introspective solo voices. The main characters are Gerontius, whose journey through death into purgatory creates a fluid narrative; an Angel, who acts as his advisor and informs the action; and a priest, who sends the soul of Gerontius into life after death. The chorus represents both Angels and Demons at different parts, with a climactic chorus of 'Praise to the Holiest in the height' returning at the end as a magnificent and ghostly apotheosis.
It can be a difficult piece to get to grips with, indeed I have hardly ever enjoyed it this much before. In Sir Colin's hands, however, it emerged as extremely beautiful, though never losing sight of the terror at the heart of the scenario. Countless details in the orchestration came to light as they rarely have before: the crescendo through the brass triplets in the Sanctus Fortis, Sanctus Deus and the piercing horn in the Angel's line, 'And thou...Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take,' were just two instances. Memories of John Barbirolli's recording with Janet Baker may not quite have been erased, but it was nevertheless an enthralling experience.
Ben Heppner was to have sung the title role, but he was indisposed - a shame after his searching Otello at Covent Garden in July. He was replaced at short notice by David Rendall, who was understandably glued to his score but found some heroic tone for the big moments (though more would have been welcome). He was genuinely moving, however, and one appreciated his achievement at such short notice.
Anne Sofie von Otter was in fabulous voice as the Angel, a really haunting figure on the platform. She coped well with the perhaps excessively long passages of narrative material in Part II, shading the undulations of the Wagnerian vocal line with far greater verve than Rendall. Alastair Miles was the bass soloist, with a magnificent full tone but perhaps lacking an ounce of searing intensity as the Angel of the Agony.
Chorus and orchestra were in marvellous form, but it was Sir Colin's night. The performance marked a year of sponsorship from USB, who sponsored free CDs and programmes - a thoughtful move for a choral work whose text was printed therein. The remainder of the USB/LSO choral masterworks series continues in February with Beethoven's Missa solemnis, and if it's anything like as expressive as this Gerontius, it will be unmissable.