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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Elgar 150th Anniversary Weekend: The Kingdom Op. 51 Soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; Members of the City of Birmingham Choir; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Symphony Hall, Birmingham 3.6 2007 (JQ)


Mary: Amanda Roocroft (soprano)
Mary Magdalene: Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano);
St. John
: John Daszak (tenor);
St. Peter: James Rutherford (baritone)

Less than eighteen hours after the last, radiant notes of The Apostles had died away,  Sakari Oramo launched into the glorious opening of the Prelude to the companion oratorio, The Kingdom. I’ve heard both pieces many times and have taken part in several performances of each,  yet I’ve never had the chance to experience live performances of both in such close proximity. As they are so closely related thematically and in terms of subject matter this was a wonderful opportunity to appreciate to the full the links between them. Elgar himself hoped that the two oratorios would be performed as consecutively as possible. For practical reasons this is rarely possible – though at least one choir has performed the two works on the same day! – but on this celebratory weekend the CBSO came as close to fulfilling Elgar’s dream as one has the right to expect.

The Apostles relates several episodes from the earthly ministry of Christ, culminating in his Ascension into Heaven, leaving behind on earth the apostles, the leaders of the nascent Christian Church. The Kingdom deals with the establishment of that church through the descent of the Holy Spirit  to the apostles at Pentecost. Kingdom is a more reflective work and fewer actual incidents are portrayed during it,  so Kingdom is the less overtly dramatic work of the two. The writer Michael Foster has said of it: “The Kingdom is like an extended slow movement, full of stately sorrow, with episodes of grandeur and exhilaration…” It requires slightly smaller forces than Apostles. Only four soloists – the conventional SATB – are needed and the orchestra is slightly smaller – though Oramo indulged us again with two harps! The chorus has a larger role to play and the choir on this occasion was about one-third larger than the one we had heard the previous evening in Apostles.

Whilst I would not wish for one moment to dismiss the greatness and, at times, the blazing originality of either Gerontius or Apostles, I think there are grounds for regarding Kingdom as the finest of all of Elgar’s choral works. By 1906, when he wrote it, he had developed even further as a composer. The writing for chorus, though breaking no new new ground, is even more assured than was the case in Apostles and the orchestration represents yet another advance on the two previous oratorios. Furthermore, the two great solos, Peter’s aria in Part Three and Mary’s radiant ‘The sun goeth down’, rival anything else in Elgar’s output for intensity of expression. Structurally, too, I find it satisfying: the work flows and hangs together even more than the more episodic Apostles. I readily confess I love Kingdom and so, with the excellent performance of Apostles still whirling round in my head, it was with particular anticipation that I took my seat in a pleasingly full Symphony Hall.

Three of the soloists had been in action the previous night, though none of them displayed any sign of tiredness. John Daszak once again took the part of St. John and again he was in good voice. The role is something of a secondary one but Daszak made the most of his opportunities to shine. He was suitably thrilling at “He that walketh upon the wings of the wind” in Part Three. His most prominent contribution came in Part Four, first with the solo “Unto you that fear His Name”, which he did very well and then in the duet immediately following, where he combined to excellent effect with James Rutherford.

Jane Irwin took the role of Mary Magdalene and once again she impressed me. Her various recitatives were convincing and dramatic, none more so than “And suddenly there came from heaven”, just after cue 76 as the Pentecost section begins. She made this whole passage truly thrilling. But she was just as successful in the more reflective stretches of her role. The short Part Two, “At the Beautiful Gate” consists simply of a duet between the two female soloists. Here Miss Irwin partnered Amanda Roocroft: their voices were well matched and their duet was a genuine partnership. The lovely singing of both ladies and Oramo’s sensitive handling of the orchestral accompaniment ensured that this brief scene was the oasis of refreshment between the major events of Parts One and Three that Elgar surely intended.

Amanda Roocroft was the newcomer to the soloists’ roster for this mini festival and her whole performance was very fine indeed. She gave of her best in the wonderful scena, ‘The sun goeth down’ ‘ at the end of Part Four. The scene was set by a marvellously atmospheric recitative from Jane Irwin before leader Laurence Jackson ravished the ear with his poetic rendition of the haunting violin solo with which the aria begins. In his book on the two oratorios, Plotting Gigantic Worx (1995, rev 2003) Michael Foster says of the music that opens and closes this aria: “The impression of a lonely figure set against the descending night sky is what remains indelibly.”  So it was on this occasion. Miss Roocroft produced a silvery thread of sound during her opening measures. Later, as the emotional temperature increased, she had the reserves of power to open up her voice magnificently for Elgar’s dramatic soaring lines. Her singing was deeply committed and very involving. My only reservation was that in the section that begins “Rejoice, ye partakers of His sufferings” I felt Oramo pressed the tempo more than seems justified by the marking poco animato. As a result the music had urgency, to be sure, but it seemed to me that some of the grandeur was lost. As the climax subsided the air of mystery was re-established for the rapt close of this unforgettable aria.

In the previous night’s performance of Apostles James Rutherford’s assumption of the role of Judas had raised my expectations for his portrayal of St Peter in Kingdom. I’m happy to report that these expectations were substantially exceeded. Throughout the performance Rutherford exuded an air of authority, helped by his physical and vocal presence. He let us see – and hear - that St Peter was a simple man but one of great stature and conviction. The highlight of his performance was the great solo in Part Three, which begins “I have prayed for thee.” Throughout this extended scena one felt that Rutherford meant every word he sang. My benchmark in this great solo has always been John Shirley-Quirk’s magnificent account of it in the Boult recording and no singer in my experience has come as close as Rutherford to matching Shirley-Quirk’s eloquence and vocal excellence. His whole portrayal of St Peter was commanding and moving.

Both the choir and orchestra maintained the fine form they’d displayed in Apostles. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the closing pages of Part Three, beginning at cue 111, where Peter enjoins the Jews to “Repent and be baptized ev’ry one of you.” What follows is great music by any standards and it is rare that I can hear it, still less take part in a performance of it, without the eyes prickling. Oramo led a thrilling and moving account of this music. In particular the horns, who are given some wonderful, demanding music to play – for example at cue 113 – seized the moment   marvellously. The last few pages blazed with conviction; the singers and players, inspired by Oramo – and Elgar – gave their all.

Oramo was, once again, in full command of the score and in total sympathy with it. A very experienced Elgar conductor once said to me that in one sense conductors of Elgar’s music didn’t really need to do much. All that was necessary was to follow the copious instructions in the score. Well Oramo certainly heeded that injunction and so far as I could see none of Elgar’s indications of dynamics or tempo modifications escaped him.

As on the previous evening, however, there were a few occasions when I felt he pressed the tempo just too much. The Prelude surged forward urgently and excitingly yet I detected a couple of bars when some orchestral detail seemed slightly smudged as the players strained to keep pace with Oramo’s challenging tempo. Again in the chorus ‘The Lord hath chosen you’ I liked the sense of urgency and fervour at Oramo’s tempo but the pace was just a notch too fast so that when the choir sang their interjections “You shall be named the Priest of the Lord” it sounded gabbled. I’ve already mentioned the slightly hasty speed in ‘The Sun goeth down’.

Yet these were details. It’s the Big Picture that matters and overall I found Oramo’s performance dedicated, convincing and deeply satisfying. He and his performers did Elgar proud. Already there have been many significant events this year celebrating the Elgar anniversary and more are to come. However, this birthday weekend in Birmingham will surely go down as one of the most important and handsome tributes to this great composer. Oramo and the CBSO made sure that Birmingham was a great place for Elgarians to mark this anniversary. Bravo!


John Quinn


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