Elgar’s great choral work, perhaps the finest composed in Britain since Handel, has now had four performances at the Proms this century, each with a different conductor and trio of soloists. The last, to a packed Albert Hall, was given by the London Philharmonic conducted by Edward Gardner, with Allan Clayton, Jamie Barton and James Platt as soloists and the combined Hallé and London Philharmonic choirs.
The concert still promised to be one of the highlights of the current season, and Gardner’s narrative, launched by a measured treatment of the prelude, and saving its most powerful moments for the set pieces of the second part , generally did not disappoint. The choral sound of over 250 voices was majestic, though with that number of singers the trickier corners of the demon choir weren’t ideally nimble; the silence of the final pages was beautifully controlled and, like the rest of the performance, was never pushed or overplayed by Gardner.
Questions of balance between vocals and a sufficiently rich orchestral sound were generally not problematic, with the exception of Barton’s Angel, which sounded surprisingly underpowered and undistinguished. His diction was indistinct, his high notes labored – the Alleluia just before Gerontius stood trial was a success story – and his delivery of the Farewell as detached and cold as his description of the stigmata of Saint Francis had been a fact. . .
The other soloists were top notch. Platt’s contribution as priest and angel of agony was as sonorous and relentless as anyone could wish, but it was inevitably Clayton’s outstanding performance that dominated things. The role of Gerontius demands a singer somewhere between a lyrical tenor and a heroic operatic voice, and Clayton fits exactly that, as impressive in the closing moments of the first part as he is in the dialogues with the Angel in the second and his last passionate “Take me away”, after Gardner’s superbly paced buildup. It was a performance that suggested Clayton is now the definitive interpreter of the role in British music today.