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Three Choirs Festival 2010 (1) - Elgar, The Kingdom Op. 51: Susan Gritton (soprano); Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano); Adrian Thompson (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra; Ashley Grote (organ); Adrian Partington, Gloucester Cathedral 7. 8.2010 (JQ)

In 2007 Andrew Nethsingha’s final Three Choirs Festival before leaving Gloucester Cathedral for St John’s College, Cambridge offered a marvellous programme that was exciting in terms of content and, to judge by the concerts I attended, equally good in terms of the quality of the performances. Three years on and the festival has returned to Gloucester with Adrian Partington, Nethsingha’s successor at Gloucester cathedral, in charge for the first time and expectations have been raised by the range and variety of the programme that he has devised. I was hugely biased in his favour when I read, in the preliminary festival schedule some months ago his statement that “I began the planning of the programme by inking in my favourite large choral work by Elgar, The Kingdom.” Well, on Saturday night the waiting was over and Mr Partington stepped on to the rostrum to conduct this important work.

Premièred in Birmingham in 1906 , The Kingdom was Elgar’s third and last oratorio and followed The Dream of Gerontius (1900) and The Apostles (1903). The Kingdom, which essentially centres on Pentecost as well as other events in the very early days of the Christian church, takes up where The Apostles left off and shares a host of musical leitmotifs with that earlier work. Elgar planned The Kingdom as the central panel of a triptych, which would have been completed by a third oratorio, The Last Judgement, but he never seriously commenced work on that last enterprise.

Mr Partington’s love for - and commitment to - Kingdom was apparent throughout the evening. In his book Plotting Great Worx. The Story of Elgar’s Apostles Trilogy (1995, rev 2003) Michael Foster writes that the Prelude to the oratorio demonstrates “a progression from fervour to solid resolution via frenzy and loneliness.” I’m not entirely sure I agree with the second part of that phrase, but I wholeheartedly endorse the first part. This Prelude is a tremendous orchestral synthesis of the main themes of the work – as successful as the Prelude to Gerontius – and Adrian Partington certainly began it fervently. To be truthful, I thought his initial speed was too fast but within a few minutes, when Elgar eases back, the pace became more satisfactory. As the performance progressed there were a few other occasions when I felt that the music was driven too hard. For example, later in Part One, at “The Lord hath chosen you”, Elgar builds the excitement before the choral outburst at “O ye priests”. The four bars before the chorus sing those words is marked stringendo. Unfortunately, by then the music was already moving so fast that there was nothing left in the tank, so “O ye priests” was not quite as thrilling as it might have been.

However, there were not too many other instances where I’d question the chosen tempo. What was evident, following in the score, was how attentive Partington was to the huge number of tempo modifications that Elgar writes into it. This ebb and flow is essential to any good performance of an Elgar work and it was reassuring that the conductor had the score so much at his fingertips. Where I felt his control was a little less sure was in the matter of dynamics. The Festival Chorus sang with great commitment and no little fervour and there was a great deal to admire and enjoy about their singing. However, I don’t believe they truly sang below mp all evening, which is a great pity as Elgar is so scrupulous – obsessive, even - in terms of the dynamic contrasts he writes into his score. I’m not entirely sure I blame the chorus for this because, since they’d evidently been very well prepared in other respects I can’t believe the dynamics had not been instilled into them. I’m afraid some of the blame must be laid at the feet of the Philharmonia. I think they could and should have been more considerate of the singers trying to project over them and the orchestral volume could have been taken down a notch throughout the evening without diminishing the impact. I suspect only one full rehearsal was possible in the cathedral, where the acoustic is tricky, so allowances must be made. But I would have expected one of the country’s leading professional orchestras to have adapted quickly to the performance conditions.  Having said that, both the chorus and orchestra produced a great deal of thrilling sound and both made a strong contribution to the ultimate success of the performance.

There are four solo roles. The soprano represents Mary, the Mother of God. The mezzo-soprano takes the role of Mary Magdalene and the tenor and bass are St John and St Peter respectively. The mezzo role is the least substantial in terms of solo opportunities – though she has an important part to play when the quartet sings together. That said, the mezzo has some key narrative passages and also joins the soprano in the brief but exquisite duet that forms the short second part of the oratorio. I enjoyed Pamela Helen Stephens’ contribution. Her tone was firm and her words were clear. From where I was seated, about half way back, it seemed that her use of vibrato was judicious and effective and she seemed to have no trouble in projecting her voice into the big acoustic of the cathedral. She sang her line in the Part II duet well and I thought that her narrative solo at the start of Part IV was very effective and also involving without over-emphasis.

I’m afraid I was much less happy with the singing of Adrian Thompson. The tenor role in Kingdom is essentially a lyrical one, which is why Alexander Young was so effective in the famous recording conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. I don’t know if Mr Thompson was not quite at his best or whether he was straining too much to project into the cathedral and over the orchestra but his singing sounded – and looked – effortful. Sadly, his tone was uningratiating and, despite the ring and the clarity, I longed for some sweetness and some lightness. There is an important duet for the two male soloists in Part IV, which begins with a substantial tenor solo before St Peter joins in later. Thompson sounded strained in this solo and then was too dominant in duet. I’m sorry to say that I thought overall that he was miscast in this role.

Susan Gritton also had her moments of fallibility. It seemed to me that her vibrato was too generous and this eroded her clarity of diction. Had I not been following the words in the score I would have had difficulty on several occasions in discerning what she was singing. The soprano has one of the two key solos in the entire work, the celebrated aria, ‘The sun goeth down’ in Part IV. Michael Foster says of this extended solo that it is “a nocturne full of withdrawn and troubled sweetness, yet soaring to heights that Elgar perhaps never reached again through such a medium.” The nocturnal parts come at the beginning and end of the aria and here I don’t think Miss Gritton achieved the serenity and inwardness that this wonderful music requires. In the central section, where the singer soars to ecstatic heights, several of the top notes were uncertain as to pitch. The aria is introduced by a violin solo of mysterious beauty – the solo returns at the end. I fear that the phrasing of the Philharmonia’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay seemed prosaic and earthbound and I didn’t feel that he provided the gentle moonlit mystery that is required. Sadly, therefore, this key part of the work proved to be something of a disappointment.

The fourth soloist, taking the role of St Peter, is the most substantial of all and one feels that this is the character with whom Elgar identified the most strongly. Fortunately the festival had engaged Roderick Williams, who is surely the best exponent of this role currently before the public. Having cut my Kingdom teeth, as it were, on the Boult recording I have been to spoilt some extent by John Shirley-Quirk’s incomparably eloquent account of the role in that recording. Williams, who I have heard sing the role previously, is the only singer in my experience who matches Shirley-Quirk in this role. He brought to this present performance dignity, clarity of diction, warmth and depth of tone and consistent accuracy of pitching. Moreover, his sheer bearing is convincing: he seems to be able to produce wonderful tone effortlessly – which is, of course, a tribute to his technique.

'The sun goeth down' is one key solo in the work; the other is Peter’s long solo in Part III, beginning at “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not”. Williams was outstanding all night but his singing from this point right through to the end of Part III was the highlight of the evening. His vocal production seemed to me to be flawless and his identification with the character appeared complete. Nothing more need be said. I know that these days it is difficult to make new CD recordings: however, for Elgar lovers it seems to me that there are two imperatives for the record industry. Somehow, someone has to find a way to record Sarah Connolly as The Angel in Gerontius and to record Roderick Williams in Kingdom. It’s a matter of urgency to preserve these two great Elgar interpretations of our time while the respective singers are at the height of their powers.

The conclusion of Part III of Kingdom contains some of Elgar’s finest music and all the performers rose to the occasion, spurred on by Adrian Partington. A moving and powerful performance of these wonderful pages of music resulted. Equally successful and stirring, though in a more restrained and reflective way, was the account of the end of the whole work, the section of Part V entitled ‘The Prayers’. Here, it seemed, everything came together in a way that was very satisfying, both emotionally and musically. The very warm ovation at the end of the evening indicated that the audience had been caught up in the music and genuinely moved by it.

I’m an unrepentant admirer of The Kingdom and hearing a performance as committed as this reminds me that, though it has its detractors, the work is one of Elgar’s greatest. Clearly, it was a major ambition of Adrian Partington to conduct the work and to do so at the very start of his first Three Choirs Festival. I hope he felt not only that his choice of music was vindicated but also a sense of satisfaction at having led such a fervent reading of the score. Despite the reservations I’ve felt bound to express, this was a fine performance, which I enjoyed greatly and which moved me. The Three Choirs Festival 2010 has been launched auspiciously.

One final thought. The Festival returns to Gloucester in 2013. I hope Mr Partington will seriously consider conducting The Apostles during that festival to mark the 110th anniversary of its first performance.

John Quinn

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