The Prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal is a profound curtain-raiser. The source of that opera’s material, punctuated by pauses, it distils a spiritual drama in, on this occasion, just eleven minutes. It often takes longer (“14 mins” says the programme) but conductor Vasily Petrenko kept it flowing while giving enough time to those pauses. He also forsook the usual watercolour wash blended texture for the prominence of individual instrumental lines. This was most telling in the piercing trumpet contributions, searing in its message of pain in a broken brotherhood.

Vasily Petrenko
© Ben Wright

The only problem with closing a fine account of this vivid Vorspiel is that one wants the curtain to rise on the scene it has announced. But Parsifal occupies a world of pain and compassion, as does Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Their musical kinship encouraged Petrenko to leave little pause between them, moving straight from Monsalvat to Gerontius’s sickroom and his “Jesu, Maria – I am near to death”. Ed Lyon's Gerontius served the text, hollowing his tone for the line “this emptying out of each constituent” as physical frailty grips. There was urgency in “Pray for me, oh my friends”. If “Sanctus, fortis” and his final “Take me away” reminded us this is a taxing role for a big space, Lyon rose to its demands, at his best in quiet, intimate passage such as “Novissima hora est” when even his mezza-voce carried aloft.

“Use well the interval” sings Gerontius, so having located water somewhere around the hall’s vast circumference, we returned to hear Estonian mezzo Kai Rüütel’s notable Angel. A warm middle voice serves much of the role, plus a confident series of rising Allelujahs, an affecting account of her “Softly and gently” farewell, touching in her concern for Gerontius’ “dearly ransomed soul”. The Angel of the Agony, bass-baritone Derek Welton, showed off his Wagnerian experience in the authoritative weight and tonal variety with which he navigated Newman’s repetitions imploring Jesus to “spare these souls”. Welton was a more than acceptable stand-in for the unwell Roderick Williams.

The Philharmonia Chorus, ranged across the top of the platform, was superb in diction, sonority, accuracy and engagement. Their soft singing had a tangible presence despite their great distance from most of the audience. They made an infernal bunch of demons, encouraged by their impish Lord of Misrule, Petrenko. The conductor paced his tension-filled approach to “Praise to the Holiest in the height” so that it burst forth in splendour, and then cued every subsequent choral entry with a stab to the relevant section, each one in the coda growing ever more fervent. Such rousing singing, playing, and conducting, not least from the mighty RAH organ (Richard Pearce in the loft) led to one of those “we don’t know if we should clap here but some of us really want to” from some audience members.

This is a conductor’s piece if it is anyone’s. In Newman’s poem passing to the next world is a hard thing to do, but we do not do it alone, for angels, the heavenly host and, for an instant, the face of God, are there too. The literal aspects of the poem can be an obstacle, unless every performer believes, if only for its ninety minutes, in Gerontius’ journey. Only the conductor can ensure such commitment and Petrenko sounded as if he knew the extracts recorded by Elgar, far more passionate – dare one say Wagnerian? – than any since. Not everyone in the large audience knew this work well perhaps, but Petrenko and colleagues surely made converts, if not to Newman’s brand of Catholicism, at least to Elgar’s score, which he inscribed “This is the best of me”.