The Kingdom

The Kingdom, Op.51

Lisa Milne (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
James Rutherford (baritone)

City of Birmingham Choir
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 October, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

No one could fault Sakari Oramo’s commitment to British music, or that of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to Elgar: the centenary of each major choral work written for the Birmingham Triennial Festival having been marked – in 2000 by performances of “The Dream of Gerontius”, in 2003 of “The Apostles”, and this year by “The Kingdom”.

While the reputation of the former work has long been secure, that of the latter two has been distinctly erratic. All the more heartening, then, when Oramo demonstrated sheer expressive power “The Apostles” in what was a revelatory account. The Kingdom might not be thought in need of quite such advocacy, but it still presents acute problems of formal cohesion and dramatic pacing that offer up no easy solutions over its 90-minute span.

Problems which were largely solved in this gripping and absorbing performance. It helped that all four soloists were so evidently inside their respective roles. James Rutherford brought a commanding vocal presence to that of Peter – the conceptual crux of the oratorio, whose music can seem to be at best dutiful, at worst laboured – investing the ‘speaking tongues’ episode in Part Three with dynamic fervour, and otherwise a source of strength in a ‘part’ that fights shy of tangible characterisation. Anthony Dean Griffey was equally attuned to the smaller but more lyrical role of John, combining in mellifluous accord with Rutherford throughout their Part Four dialogue when healing the lame man.

Appealing in her brief contribution as Mary Magdalene, Catherine Wyn-Rogers was equally assured in the numerous recitatives that – as if looking back to the Handelian tradition – provide narrative focus across the greater part of the work; ensuring that what can often seem to be mere linking passages were made integral to the continuity of the ongoing drama. A touch cautious in her initial solos as Mary the Virgin, Lisa Milne combined ideally with Wyn-Rogers in their lithesome duet making up Part Two, then rose to considerable heights of eloquence in her soliloquy ‘The sun goeth down’ – justifiably regarded as the work’s finest inspiration and which, thanks to Oramo’s astute pacing, evinced real dramatic urgency to offset its more contemplative aspect: doubt and certainty potently combined.

Nor were the combined City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and the City of Birmingham Choir found wanting in music that they must get to sing comparatively rarely these days. Here, it was the more declamatory sections in Parts One and Three that left the strongest impression: those representing the people given with incisive attack and a much-needed clarity in the densely contrapuntal textures prevalent during fugato passages. This ensured that the weight of choral tone never became turgid, in a way that can only have marred past performances of these works to an unfortunate degree.

Oramo directed with the unfailing conviction that made his “The Apostles” something to savour. While the lengthy ‘Prelude’ can arguably yield even more grandeur and nobility, its setting out of the oratorio’s motivic nucleus was powerfully apparent, and the purposefulness with which he proceeded through Part One helped to sustain interest in what can often seem a musically indifferent opening half-hour. By the same token, the setting of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ that closes the work had a deftness to banish any hint of the sanctimonious – its sentiments conveyed as a benediction rather than an apotheosis. If Elgar indeed finished work on “The Kingdom” with a sense of having failed to encompass the extent of The New Testament, such doubt yet motivates the music in a way inspiring and relevant to us today.

It need hardly be added that, in terms of unanimity and keenness of response, the CBSO could hardly be faulted. It and Oramo will be performing all three oratorios on consecutive nights next June, in what promises to be a truly memorable commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth.

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