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 latest, in a crammed Albert Hall, was given by the London Philharmonic conducted by Edward Gardner, with Allan Clayton, Jamie Barton and James Platt as the soloists and the combined choirs of the Hallé and the London Philharmonic.
The concert always promised to be one of the highlights of the current season, and Gardner’s account, launched with a measured treatment of the prelude, and reserving its moments of greatest power for the set pieces of the second part, generally did not disappoint. The choral sound from in excess of 250 voices was majestic, even if with that number of singers the trickier corners of the Demons’ Chorus were not ideally nimble; the hush of the final pages was beautifully controlled and, like the rest of the performance, was never pushed or overplayed by Gardner.
Matters of balance between voices and a suitably rich orchestral sound were generally not problematic, with the exception of Barton’s Angel, who sounded surprisingly underpowered and undistinguished. Her diction was indistinct, her high notes effortful – the Alleluia just before Gerontius goes to his judgment was a hit-and-hope affair – and her delivery of the Farewell as detached and chilly as her description of Saint Francis’s stigmata had been matter of fact.
The other soloists were first rate. Platt’s contribution as the priest and the Angel of the Agony were as sonorous and implacable as anyone could want, but it was inevitably Clayton’s outstanding performance that dominated things. The role of Gerontius demands a singer somewhere between a lyric tenor and a heroic operatic voice, and Clayton fits that exactly, as impressive in the dying moments of part one as in the dialogues with the Angel in the second and his final impassioned “Take me away”, after Gardner’s superbly paced buildup. It was a performance suggesting that Clayton is now the definitive interpreter of the role in British music today.
• Available on BBC Sounds until 10 October. The Proms continue until 10 September.