The Dream of Gerontius/LSO/Davis, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

I grew up with the music of Edward Elgar. For any musically minded child in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire in the 1980s, his was the dominant voice: an international giant in a corner of Britain otherwise inclined to the modest charms of Finzi, Howells and Parry. Yet Elgar's significance in this country as a whole is such that our response to his music - be it for or against - is primarily sentimental.

Annually, Pomp and Circumstance defines us in the Last Night of the Proms. Meanwhile, for those who don't make their final exit to Robbie Williams, Nimrod is a popular funeral recessional. I have no idea what an Italian might think of when listening to Elgar's Cello Concerto. For the average Brit, however, the Malvern Hills are always there.

Against this background of intense, automatic association, it is difficult to hear The Dream of Gerontius clearly. Though The Music Makers is the finer work, Gerontius is Elgar's most well-loved oratorio: an ambitious essay in depicting an ante-chamber to the afterlife. But, as Sir Colin Davis's performance with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus revealed last Sunday, it is also his most faulty.

Davis's approach to Elgar has always been international: bright, fierce, ruthlessly rhythmical, richly coloured, almost operatic in its directness. Sadly, with Ben Heppner indisposed, David Rendall stepping in at the last minute, and the sopranos and altos of the chorus whitened out to sound like boy trebles, the tone of this performance was more parochial than he had perhaps intended. While the Prelude and the Wagnerian scene changes were sharply defined - with the harps as the heartbeat of the score and the strings blended to an almost unbearable intensity - Davis seemed more in tune with the earthly agonies of the first part of the work than he was with the awe and bliss of the second.

Rendall's performance as the old man encountering his God was half gorgeous, half off-the-peg. The Italianate spin of his upper register is thrilling, yet his words were clearer in their enunciation than their meaning. Newman's poetry is problematic - a sweaty wrangle between intellectualism and uncritical belief - and Rendall failed to encompass both elements. In fairness, Elgar is of little help. In the broadly humanist themes of sorrow, comfort, love, regret and fear, he is a genius. At the climax of Gerontius's journey, however, God - whose presence offstage has hitherto been painted with sepulchral reverence - appears with a crash of cymbals like a Las Vegas magician in a sequinned jumpsuit. (Perhaps it would have been better had Elgar stuck to his original resolve not to attempt to show Him.)

Notwithstanding Alastair Miles's arresting bass solos, the most affecting and intelligent moments in this Gerontius came from Anne Sofie Von Otter as the Angel. Alone among the soloists, she matched the seriousness, sincerity and complexity of Davis's orchestral accompaniment. Hers are the best tunes in this beautiful, uneven work, and hers was the best singing.