Hope triumphs over experience every time promoters choose Westminster Cathedral for a big choral piece. Their brain tells them that unless the music is either slow or composed by John Tavener, only a few rows of listeners at the front will pick much detail out of the acoustic mush. Then they look around. Galleries, distant spaces, colour and height, all provide such an opportunity for spectacle that every so often it's worth the sacrifice of actually hearing the music.
So here we were back with the bad old tradition of performing Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ in Advent. Never mind that the action doesn't start until baby Jesus has popped out and Herod gets scary, it's got angels and shepherds and a manger. With Berlioz's 200th birthday the day before and this being the 75th anniversary season of the BBC Symphony Chorus, there was an element of party as well as ritual to their performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Two bare Christmas trees on either side of the high altar added their touch of pagan atmosphere. The cathedral itself, however, ensured that in the music, hushed and mysterious qualities took primacy. Above all this happened at the end of the work, after Berlioz makes it pivot into timelessness by way of soft, still alternations of violins and violas. Mark Padmore's wistful narrator morphed into the embodiment of quiet lyrical intensity. Sir Andrew Davis held back the chorus's pace and tone until it reached a hushed, deep, unaccompanied last chord whose perfection was the finest possible way of celebrating the anniversary.
Until then Davis had taken a cautious approach, giving the music time to be heard and disdaining to use the building's theatrical potential. The semi-chorus of angels drawn from Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir sang invisibly from somewhere between the main chorus and the trees. Otherwise what you saw was meant to be what you got. With David Wilson-Johnson as Joseph and Polydorus it really was: he better than the other soloists had found a way to project his voice through the resonance and gave a lift to the experience every time he sang.
Louise Winter's Mary responded most urgently to the despair of successive rejections when seeking shelter. Peter Rose, doubling as Herod and the head of the family that takes in the refugees, rolled out some impressive tone while achieving the singular feat of making the two characters much the same. The orchestra stayed together and gave you a guessing game as to which of Berlioz's pieces of scoring would work best.
Rapid woodwind came through brightly when the accompaniment was lighter. Best of all was the dance trio in which the harp rang out as equal partner with the flutes.Reuse content