In 1968, to celebrate his forthcoming 80th birthday the following
year, Sir Adrian Boult was given by EMI the choice of a major
work to record. This distinguished Elgar interpreter might have
been expected to choose The Dream of Gerontius but his
admirers had to wait a few more years for that. Instead he chose
The Kingdom and it was through his fine, dedicated recording
(EMI 7 64902-2) that I first came to know and love Elgar’s
Boult was a great admirer of The Kingdom and in a note
accompanying the original release of his recording he included
the following statement:
“I think there is a great deal in The Kingdom that
is more than a match for Gerontius, and I feel that it is a
much more balanced work and throughout maintains a stream of
glorious music whereas Gerontius has its up and downs. Perhaps
I was prejudiced by hearing a great friend of Elgar’s
[Frank Schuster] (who was very kind to me in my young days)
jump down the throat of a young man who made this criticism
[that Gerontius was a finer achievement than Kingdom]: ‘My
dear boy, beside The Kingdom, Gerontius is the work of a raw
I wouldn’t go as far as Schuster but I know what Boult
meant about Kingdom being a morebalanced work
- perhaps because Elgar fashioned his own libretto. Also, I
believe that by the time he composed Kingdom, six years
on from Gerontius, Elgar had become an even more accomplished
orchestrator and a more assured choral writer.
Boult’s version, though now starting to show its age sonically,
remains a benchmark. Since it appeared there have been two more
recordings. One was a sumptuously engineered Chandos set from
Richard Hickox (CHAN 8788/9). The other, which I have not heard,
was made for RCA Red Seal by Leonard Slatkin but I suspect is
no longer available. Sadly, that fine Elgar conductor, Vernon
Handley, never had the opportunity to record the work.
Every since I reviewed
his superb recording of Gerontius I have been hoping
that Sir Mark Elder might make a recording of Kingdom
and now, here it is. Unlike his Gerontius, which was
recorded under studio conditions, this is taken from a single
live concert performance. ‘Live’ recordings often
include a few edits from rehearsal. I don’t know if that
happened here but if it did the edits are completely undetectable
and, in fact, I’m pretty sure that what we have here is
a single, unedited performance; that’s what it sounds
like. Those who worry about applause on CDs can be reassured;
unlike Elder’s recent recording of Götterdämmerung
applause is absent here.
One thing I should say at the start is that if you buy this
recording for no other reason - and there are many reasons
why you should buy it - do so in order to hear the orchestral
playing. That may be an odd thing to say about a choral recording
and in saying it I do not mean in any way to disparage the vocal
contributions. However, when Elgar wrote The Kingdom
he was at the height of his very considerable powers as an orchestrator
and his colourful and resourceful orchestral scoring is a major
element of this score. I think the composer would have rejoiced
to hear his music so magnificently played as it is here by the
Hallé. Their playing is truly world class and a vivid
testament to the achievement to date of their Music Director,
Sir Mark Elder. The playing radiates assurance and a familiarity
with Elgar’s idiom. The strings consistently play with
richness and flexibility while the woodwind has great finesse.
Best of all, the brass section possesses splendid power and
authority but, schooled by Elder, this is never overdone. One
small example will suffice. Towards the end of Part III, beginning
five bars after cue 120 in the Novello score, the brass nobly
play the ‘New Faith’ motif (CD 1, track 9, 4:25).
In the Hickox recording this is delivered fortissimo
and it’s rather grandiose as a result. Elder, like Boult,
has noticed that the marking is only forte and the consequent
restraint in both recordings is more effective.
The LPO plays excellently for Boult on his recording while the
LSO is on refulgent form for Hickox. However, I feel that the
Hallé surpass both their rivals. They may not be recorded
as vividly as the LSO - I’ll comment about the respective
recordings later - but they are no less impressive. Also, I
feel that Hickox has a tendency to underline points in the score.
This rather impedes the natural flow of the orchestral playing
in a way that is absent from either Boult’s or Elder’s
performances though both of these conductors - and their respective
players - consistently display admirable attention to Elgar’s
The Hallé Choir is by no means put in the shade by their
orchestral colleagues. From the very start they sing with great
confidence and impressive tone. It’s evident that they’ve
been scrupulously prepared by their guest Director, Tom Seligman.
I particularly appreciated the dynamic range of their singing.
They are capable of producing very exciting loud singing where
Elgar requires it but their quiet singing is just as noteworthy.
The precision and attack that they bring to the music is excellent
throughout, as is the clarity of their diction and altogether
I think the choir’s contribution is top-class.
The four soloists take respectively the roles of the Blessed
Virgin Mary (soprano), Mary Magdalen (mezzo), St John (tenor)
and St Peter (baritone). Of these, it is the role of St Peter
that is the most prominent though to the soprano falls the very
best music in the whole work, the aria, ‘The sun goeth
The tenor role is not easy to present. It has its dramatic moments
but it is primarily lyrical. In fact, I think Elgar portrayed
St. John as The Comforter among the Apostles, and certainly
as a more reflective character than St Peter. The challenge
to the tenor soloist is to sing the role with sufficient impact
but without straying into vehemence, which was the main reason
why I thought Adrian Thompson was miscast in the role at a Three
Choirs Festival concert this summer (review).
Arthur Davies, for Hickox, sings with ringing assurance but,
I think, misses some of the humanity for which the role calls.
Alexander Young (Boult) is the exemplar in this part and I don’t
think John Hudson matches Young. For the most part he sings
reliably, though there were a couple of occasions on which he
seemed to approach important high notes from below. However,
to my ears he doesn’t have the same lyrical grace and
ease that Young brought to the music.
The mezzo role of Mary Magdalen is sung by Susan Bickley, who
so impressed me in Mahler’s Second Symphony at the Three
Choirs Festival this summer (review).
She makes a fine job of this role too, singing with warm tone
and great clarity throughout. I’d say she’s as good
as the excellent Yvonne Minton (Boult) and I prefer her to Felicity
Palmer (Hickox). She blends well with Clare Rutter in the fresh,
lightly scored duet that forms Part II of the work. Later, she
has a couple of very important narrative passages. One such
is at the start of Part III (“And suddenly, there came
from heaven”). Here she’s dramatic and exciting,
rising to a thrilling top G sharp. Further on in the work, she’s
just as involving in the narration at the start of ‘The
Arrest’ (Disc 2, track 3).
That narration ushers in the great soprano aria, ‘The
sun goeth down’. This is a huge test for the soprano soloist,
who has to begin and end the aria in a mood of prayerful contemplation
but must rise to great dramatic heights in the central section.
Margaret Price (Boult) is peerless here, setting standards that
I’ve never heard matched on disc or live. In the outer
sections of the aria her singing is rapt, supported with great
sensitivity by Rodney Friend (I think), playing the luminous
solo violin part. In the middle of the aria the dramatic fervour
that Price brings to the music elevates it to the highest level.
I’m afraid Margaret Marshall (Hickox) doesn’t match
this accomplishment at all. There are some instances of wayward
pitching on sustained notes at the start of the aria and, beside
Miss Price, she sounds a bit squally in the central section.
Clare Rutter may not quite equal Margaret Price but she makes
a fine job of this aria. I’d have liked her to sing the
opening phrases just a little more softly - especially after
Lyn Fletcher has prepared the way so beautifully with a lovely
account of the violin solo - but overall her delivery of the
more inward passages of the aria shows pleasing sensitivity.
When the dramatic intensity of the music picks up she responds
with very committed singing. At cue 159 (“The Gospel of
the Kingdom”) (disc 2, track 4, 4:55) she’s really
fervent yet within a few moments she’s fined things down
to produce an exquisite pianissimo on the word “Jesus”
(5:57). This is a distinguished piece of singing, which means
that the aria is a high spot, as it should be. This is the most
important contribution that Elgar gives to his soprano but elsewhere
Miss Rutter’s singing is very good, not least in the afore-mentioned
duet with Susan Bickley.
The key solo role in The Kingdom is the baritone part,
here entrusted to Iain Paterson. He sings well and with authority.
Once again, the Boult recording sets the benchmark for John
Shirley-Quirk is quite magnificent in the role, singing with
a marvellous combination of controlled intensity and tonal richness.
For Hickox, David Wilson-Johnson does very well without surpassing
Shirley-Quirk. I enjoyed Iain Paterson’s singing very
much. He brings intelligence to the role and, as I’ve
already said, authority. His crucial, long solo in Part III,
built around the ‘New Faith’ theme, is a cornerstone
of the work and Paterson doesn’t disappoint. He delivers
this and his other solos with conviction and at every turn his
diction is clear.
I had hoped that Sir Mark Elder would prove an authoritative
interpreter of The Kingdom and indeed he does. Several
things mark out his interpretation. One is an impressive control
of pace and structure. That, I suppose, is no surprise given
his pedigree as a fine operatic conductor. Another is his attention
to detail, respecting Elgar’s copious and vital markings
in the score. That, again, should be no surprise to anyone who
has heard his previous excellent Elgar recordings. He also demonstrates
a great understanding of the score, ensuring that the sentiments
it expresses are given their due weight but never letting the
music sound sanctimonious. It seemed to me that his choice of
tempi was, almost without exception, excellent. Elder displays
a mastery of the score that is comparable with Boult’s
and he doesn’t indulge in any of the over-emphatic point-making
that slightly mar Hickox’s otherwise impressive reading.
To cap it all, this is a live recording so we can benefit from
the sweep and electricity of the occasion.
I should mention the quality of sound in the respective recordings.
The Boult recording was made in Kingsway Hall by Christopher
Bishop and Christopher Parker. It’s a very good recording
but it is now over forty years old and it hasn’t got the
same degree of presence and inner clarity as its two more modern
rivals. The Chandos recording for Hickox was made in St Jude’s
Church, London by Brian and Ralph Couzens. The sound has great
presence, indeed punch, and in many ways it’s a splendid
achievement. The sound can be thrilling and, as usual with Chandos,
a great deal of detail is revealed. However, playing all three
recordings on the same equipment and without adjusting the controls
made me think that perhaps the fullness of the Chandos sound
was just a bit too much of a good thing at times.
The engineering team behind this new Hallé recording
is exactly the same one that produced Elder’s warmly
received recording of Götterdämmerung.
I haven’t yet had the time to do more than sample that
Wagner recording though what I’ve heard has impressed
me. I’m certainly very impressed indeed by this new Elgar
recording. It seems to me to present a nicely truthful concert
hall balance. The soloists are given a properly prominent position
in the aural picture without one feeling that they’re
artificially close. The choir, though behind the orchestra is
reported with presence while the orchestra is in excellent balance
with both the choir and the soloists, allowing one to appreciate
their superb playing without feeling that the orchestra is too
It only remains to say that the notes are by the doyen of Elgar
commentators, Michael Kennedy, who provides a succinct but completely
satisfying note about the work and a good synopsis of the action.
I hope that this fine new recording of The Kingdom will
enhance the reputation of this marvellous work. It contains
a great deal of quintessential Elgar, not least ‘The sun
goeth down’. And much of Part III, from the start of St
Peter’s extended aria (‘I have prayed for thee’)
to the end of that movement, is top-drawer Elgar. The ending
of Part III never fails to move me, especially when it’s
done as superbly and convincingly as is the case here. As I
said earlier, I might not go as far as Frank Schuster in evaluating
the respective merits of Gerontius and Kingdom
but I feel that Kingdom has been unfairly in the shadow
of Elgar’s earlier choral masterpiece so it’s a
cause for rejoicing that this splendid new Hallé account
is now available.
Elder has already given us a recording of the Prelude to The
Kingdom as a filler to his recording, with Thomas Zehetmair
of the Violin Concerto. That was a different performance of
the Prelude, set down in 2005. Reviewing
the disc William Hedley said that Elder’s account of the
Prelude made him want to hear the complete oratorio again. Well,
now he can and I hope he’ll enjoy it as much as I have.
With this excellent recording Sir Mark Elder further enhances
his reputation as the finest Elgar conductor currently before
the public. I hope he will go on before too long to give us
a much-needed new recording of the companion oratorio, The
Apostles. Can I also enter a plea that the Hallé’s
evolving Elgar Edition will encompass the shamefully neglected
Spirit of England, of which I’m sure Sir Mark would
be a fine interpreter?
Sir Adrian Boult’s recording of The Kingdom must
retain its place as a reference performance, not least because
it has the finest quartet of soloists that I’ve ever heard
in the work. However, this new Elder interpretation is a worthy
rival and should be heard by all Elgar enthusiasts. It is certainly
the pre-eminent digital account.