I do worry about the haters. They were all over Twitter yesterday. Is it the heady reek of a musical thurible that incenses them or do they genuinely believe that Elgar wrote a second-rate oratorio? Like Parsifal before it, The Dream of Gerontius attracts and repels people differently according to their response to its cod-religious content but few, surely, would deny its compositional glory.

Edward Gardner
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Edward Gardner’s BBC Proms account seemed alert to this controversy, for he treated the work as a rousing evening’s entertainment rather than an offshoot of the Catholic liturgy. He conducted the Prelude as high drama, depicting a place where life meets death and drawing an extraordinary dynamic and expressive range from his musicians. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, so recently released from Glyndebourne duty, played for its music director like a band possessed.

The massed voices of the Hallé Choir and the London Philharmonic Choir, prepared by Matthew Hamilton and Neville Creed respectively, filled the Royal Albert Hall with their rich variety, whether as an angelical host or a chorus of rollicking demons (“Ha! Ha!”). Only their great set piece anthem “Praise to the Holiest” fell below expectations thanks to some uncharacteristically over-cooked direction from Gardner. He began with such overwhelming immensity that he had nowhere to develop his reading, and the final third emerged as a contrapuntal soup. Methought the entertainer tried too hard.

The Dream of Gerontius at the BBC Proms
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

A performance of Gerontius is only as strong as its soloists, of course, and Gardner’s team was bullion. Allan Clayton, who seems to hoover up all the monster works for tenor in the English language, sang the title role with the same profundity and engagement he brings to Hamlet or Peter Grimes. He is such an intelligent artist. In his hands the soul’s great cry on seeing the face of God, “Take me away!”, was neither heroic nor terror-struck but a response to the numinous – something ineffable and beyond his comprehension.

James Platt, Edward Gardner, Allan Clayton and the LPO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Jamie Barton’s Angel was an ideal partner to Clayton’s protagonist, which is as well since they share so much of Part Two between them. The American mezzo-soprano is a favourite with the Proms audience and with good reason: not only is her timbre rich and gorgeous, she has the knack of cutting through the invisible curtain that can too easily veil solo voices on the Albert Hall platform. (With such reserves of warmth and talent she can perhaps be forgiven an idiosyncratic pronunciation of “Subvenite”.)

The bass James Platt completed the trio with two fine interpolations, one in each part, and his declamation of the great “Proficiscere” as Gerontius dies was a rhetorically satisfying belting of Elgar’s inspired climax. It followed hard on the heels of Gardner and Clayton’s rapidfire “Sanctus fortis”, a first-act audience-pleaser if ever I heard one. But, hey, that's showbiz. 

****1