To call Cardinal Newman's text high-flown is a little like calling the Sistine Chapel ceiling understated. But to a devout Catholic like Elgar, it was indeed manna from heaven. He took this text of suffocating archness, and renewed it, transfigured it with his music.
Wherever it is he takes us, we - believers and non-believers alike - want to be there again some day. To quote Gerontius: "'Tis this strange innermost abandonment." Just so.
On the last page of the score, Elgar wrote: "This is the best of me." On Sunday night, Sir Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus demonstrated exactly what that means. Elgar was never happy with the term "Oratorio", which is how his masterpiece is generally described. There's a clue here as to how he wished Gerontius to be performed.
He meant to transcend the so-called English Choral Tradition with a more "operatic" manner. He even suggested that the title role might enter the domain of the Italian tenor. Yet Gerontius is so coloured by the all-pervasive richness of German romanticism that the heldentenor timbre is probably more appropriate.
Davis brought in the American, Thomas Moser, a voice weighted firmly towards that fach. He began apprehensively, the phrasing too squared-off, the line not readily bending. I appreciated his refusal to over-deploy the head-voice in Elgar's many high pianissimi. But the break troubled him in such moments, and the most rapt of them all, "Novissima hora est", was nothing like veiled enough.
Still, the elegant diminuendo is his stock-in-trade, and as his involvement grew so did his courage, culminating in a searing delivery of the great cry of the soul: "Take me away".
Taking him away was the marvellous Anne Sofie von Otter, Swedish by birth, English by intonation, each phrase moulded with intelligence and respect and fine, unforced tone - mezzo colours with soprano reach.
But the ultimate challenge is choral, and the London Symphony Chorus were most impressive. A few frayed edges in the semi-chorus were cruelly exposed in the immediacy of the Barbican Hall, but the thrust of the big moments was all there, the demons baring the teeth of their text with that characteristic snarl, the great swathes of "Praise to the Holiest" superbly paced and delineated by Davis, just enough urgency in the final surge of affirmation. Then the momentary glimpse of God, that blin ding flash of a chord, the most intense in all Elgar. Davis has one foot in the opera house with that; and, as the final arpeggios rise like waves through the strings at the close, we might just have glimpsed the Holy Grail.
n The second performance of the `Dream' ,7.30pm on Thursday at the Barbican (0171-638 8891)Reuse content