One of the most striking features of the magnificent performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius by Mark Elder was the way in which it seemed to reinvent the Royal Festival Hall sound. I don't know if they've tweaked the acoustics, but from my seat it had a depth, breadth and resonance that was quite transforming. Or was it just an auditory illusion born of Elder's masterly control of Elgar's far-flung planes of sound? If ever a score made sonic capital of the "out of body" experience, this is it. Deliverance into the hands of the Angelicals came through choral and orchestral texturing as diaphanous as you're ever likely to hear. "Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!" boomed Alastair Miles's splendid Priest. Not doing so was not an option.
From the balmy, muted string writing of the prelude, this was a reading characterised by the subtlest, most atmospheric nuancing. In Gerontius's opening monologue, Elder's skilfully deployed tempo rubato for once took Elgar at his word, the impending death throes implicit in the tempo changes, now rapt, now restless.
Donald Kaasch, his American Gerontius, had problems negotiating Elgar's difficult writing across the break between chest and head voice, between full voice and mezza voce. He was, in more ways than one, "on the edge" between life and death. But his immediate engagement with the text and the spirit therein carried him through a number of crises. Indeed, at one key climax on the words "such as came to Thee/ In Thine own agony", the unsolicited break in his voice was used to theatrical effect. Bags of heart, then, and in his final utterance, a deep, abiding calm.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus did Elder proud, and what an inspired idea to use a real church choir – the Choir of the Temple Church – of males, falsettos, and boy trebles for the semi-chorus. The double-chorus "Praise to the Holiest" truly "crossed the threshold" at its climax, Elder effecting a colossal crescendo at the pay-off, and there was a heart-stopping moment as the Soul of Gerontius proclaimed "I go before my Judge" and Elder held in awesome suspension two of the quietest, most profound chords in all Elgar.
It was only a matter of time before Sarah Connolly, born to sing the Angel, did so. And she did so gloriously. It's such a complete, evenly produced voice, but it's the honesty and musicality of her phrasing, carrying as it does the sense and import of the words, that sets her apart. "This is the best of me", Elgar noted on his manuscript. No one there would disagree.