Classical & Opera: Sound of the century

The acoustics of St Paul's are notoriously difficult, but Andrew Davis is unperturbed. The laid-back maestro conducts Elgar's `The Dream of Gerontius' there to mark the BBC's 75th birthday

This year, the BBC is 75 years old. And how better to mark the event than with a quintessentially English work played by its own in-house orchestra? For it is Elgar's setting of Cardinal Newman's poem, The Dream of Gerontius, which receives a special performance from St Paul's, to be broadcast live on Radio 3. Andrew Davis (right) conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a fine trio of vocal soloists - mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, tenor Philip Langridge and bass Alastair Miles.

By his own admission, Davis claims to have "conducted Gerontius perhaps upwards of 20 times, though I haven't been counting. Yet I never tire of it, for there's always something new to discover, as there is with all musical masterworks." So does he regard Gerontius as a masterpiece? "Well, without going into hyperbole, it's certainly a magnificent and richly rewarding piece. And if Britain can be said to have produced a home-grown musical form, then it probably is the large-scale choral setting. Take Britten's War Requiem and Tippett's Mask of Time, for example - both arise from what one might call the Gerontius tradition."

Davis has been a key figure in the BBC's lavish and ongoing "Sounding the Century" project, which spotlights a gamut of 20th-century music. Another reason, maybe, why he regards Gerontius as such a seminal work is that "Elgar wrote it in 1900 and so it literally straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, both looking back and looking forward; and it's still casting its shadow of influence as we approach a new century. I can think of no better single opus for a BBC celebration anniversary concert like this one."

Yet though Andrew Davis has conducted Elgar's Gerontius a score of times before, this is the first time ever he will wield a baton in St Paul's. "The acoustic is said to be somewhat notorious," adds the ever laid-back conductor, "or so I've been told, but I don't usually go on what I hear. I'll investigate the situation myself when I get there." No doubt he will, for such a carefree, yet dedicated attitude seems to epitomise the hands-on approach which characterises so much of Davis's fine music-making. Wherever he conducts, his results are invariably polished and invigorating. Whichever way he elects to marshal his forces in St Paul's, this concert will surely form a Gerontius to remember.

Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Elgar's `The Dream of Gerontius' at St Paul's Cathedral, EC4, 26 Nov 7.30pm.

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