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The occasion was, you might think, nothing special. One of the many London-based classical orchestras, with its dedicated chorus, was playing and singing in the acoustically charmless Barbican Hall under a conductor known for consummate professionalism rather than the star quality of a Mariss Jansons or a Valery Gergiev; the programme consisted of a staple of English choral music, setting a dated text by a 19th-century cardinal about a man’s passage through death, full of snippets of Latin and featuring not one but two singing angels.
But what a thrilling concert the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s recent The Dream of Gerontius under Sir Andrew Davis (available on BBC iPlayer until April 28) turned out to be. Perhaps Edward Elgar has only himself to blame for the self-image he created of an Edwardian country gentleman; the image was a mask and the man behind it was as volcanically emotional and insecure as, say, Gustav Mahler. Lady Elgar once had to whisper in the ear of a guest at their dinner table that it was better not to discuss suicide in Edward’s presence; he was always talking about doing away with himself. Elgar himself described his violin concerto as “too emotional”; but he could also have been talking about Gerontius, surely one of the most heart- and soul-churning pieces of music ever written.
Davis knows the music inside out, how to shape and colour the intensely imaginative orchestral score, when to hold back, when to go full throttle. His trio of soloists could hardly have been better, Stuart Skelton, who was outstanding in English National Opera’s recent Peter Grimes, singing Gerontius with arresting ease, naturalness and beauty of tone; Sarah Connolly radiant and consoling as the Angel, David Soar dark and implacable as the Angel of the Agony.
But for all the excellence of the soloists, I thought the real stars were the BBC forces, especially the chorus. They articulated the words with exemplary expressiveness and precision: sneeringly cynical as the chorus of demons and then rising to blazing splendour in “Praise to the holiest”, in which Davis let everything rip and almost brought the roof down.
The superb BBC Symphony Chorus is, in fact, a bunch of amateurs. The BBC maintains five professional orchestras and one professional chorus, the BBC Singers. The BBC Symphony Chorus is not one of those professional outfits but has a long and distinguished history in its various incarnations at the National Chorus, the BBC Chorus and the BBC Choral Society. It gave the UK premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – the Symphony of a Thousand – in 1930 and performed with distinction under the batons of Toscanini, Adrian Boult and Bruno Walter. It is the resident chorus at the Proms. Quite how this collection of part-time singers keeps up the quality and intensity of its performing under director Stephen Jackson is a minor miracle, embedded in a bigger one.
The bigger miracle is the continued survival and, indeed, flourishing of the embattled BBC itself. The reputation of the BBC is hardly better than that of the Catholic Church, say, until the recent election of Pope Francis: that is to say, it is seen as a complacent, monstrously swollen bureaucracy, inexcusably self-protective in relation to damaging sex scandals. Its curious idea of balance leads it to give equal weight to non-scientific climate change deniers and top climate scientists. It took a former governor, the crime writer PD James, to point out the excessiveness of the salaries paid to top BBC executives.
The virtues of the BBC still seem to me to outshine its admittedly glaring faults. The threads it has woven into the national cultural fabric are many and inestimable. Take the five orchestras already mentioned, and add to them the commissioning of new music and drama, the running of the world’s greatest classical music festival, the Proms, which this year will feature 10 orchestras making their Proms debuts, from countries as varied as Singapore, South Korea, China and Iceland.
Not long ago I went to interview a senior politician at the Cabinet Office. I was interested that the news channel chosen for the TVs in the public areas was Sky News, not BBC News. Sky is a professional organisation but its creative and cultural achievements hardly match those of the BBC. Many politicians do not seem to like the BBC very much. Under the sway of the prevailing market fundamentalism, some of them appear allergic to the very idea of a national corporation funded by a licence fee. The BBC’s set-up is one of those organic, improvised arrangements in British life, owing more to Heath Robinson than to rational planning, which works and has worked and offers great value. When Pericles came to sum up the achievement of Athens, in his funeral oration for the first casualties of the Peloponnesian war, he declared that “our city as a whole is an education to Greece”. You might almost say that the BBC, at its best, was an education to the world.
More columns at ft.com/eyres