Saturday night's Prom provided a tantalising glimpse of what is to come with the London Symphony Orchestra (and their Chorus) under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. The sheer scale of Gurrelieder shows the scope of Rattle's ambition. The Danish legend of doomed lovers King Waldemar and Tovelille is one of the largest choral works ever written, requiring five soloists, a speaker, three large male voice choirs (joined by upper voices in the final chorus) and an orchestra with no less than four Wagner tubas!

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

With such massive forces, the main concern would always be whether the orchestra and voices could maintain a balance, particularly in an acoustic such as the Royal Albert Hall. Some rose to the challenge more than others, in spite of Rattle's sensitive reading of the acoustic. Simon O'Neill's Waldemar was much more convincing in death than in life, though even then there was still a sense that his approach came from an awe of the technical challenges rather than a deep connection with the text. Eva-Maria Westbroek took a while to warm up to her environment as his fated lover Tovelille, though once she had she was full of feeling and expression which more than compensated for a few moments of murky diction – even after Tove's demise, she (remaining seated on stage) was visibly moved by the music around her.

Eva-Maria Westbroek and the LSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Eva-Maria Westbroek and the LSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Karen Cargill showed them all how it was done, with an absolute masterclass of a performance as the Wood-Dove; with clarity of diction and tone, she was never swamped by the huge forces around her, even as they erupted with her final declaration of flying far to seek out grief and death. A close second to her sheer brilliance was Peter Hoare as Klaus the Fool, clearly enjoying the madness of his moment, which could only have been enhanced by slightly less reliance on the music. Christopher Purves also brought clarity to his turn as a terrified peasant watching Waldemar's undead army ride by, while Thomas Quasthoff's Speaker was a tour de force, exhaling in the renewal of nature, ushering in the final climax of the sun-chorus.

Karen Cargill and the LSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Karen Cargill and the LSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

And what a chorus it was, combining the forces of the LSC, the CBSO Chorus and Orféo Català. It felt as though we were on the sun itself, never mind beholding it, as hundreds of voices exploded with a crystal-clear diction "Seht die Sonne". It didn't matter that after this it was almost impossible to discern the rest of the text, the message was clear; after all the pain and glory and death, the sun rises again in splendour and hope is renewed. It more than made up for nebulous enunciation elsewhere from the men too, though they were beautifully hushed as they sank down to sleep the sleep of the undead. The tenor section in particular deserves huge credit – so delicate yet unstrained were their highest moments, it was easy to wonder whether they’d had support from the altos seated behind them (they hadn’t).

<i>Gurrelieder</i> at the BBC Proms © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Gurrelieder at the BBC Proms
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

While at times it did feel like the voices and the orchestra were engaged in battle for supremacy, there were far more moments of synergy – beautifully lyrical violins announcing Tove’s entrance, jubilantly underscoring Waldemar’s love for her, the huge percussion section bringing the dead very much to life with rattling chains and firing blistering heat into the final chorus. The orchestra also had their own moments in the sun (and shade) – the orchestral interlude before Tove’s death was heartbreaking, heaving with love, loss and foreboding, with haunting birdsong rounding out the prelude before the Wood-Dove’s entrance. It was also clear that the orchestra were enjoying themselves immensely under Rattle’s baton, and that the feeling was mutual. As an indication of what’s to come, this performance was an absolute treat.