It was an amazing, almost out-of-body experience to be part of the audience for this rare performance of Elgar’s oratorio. “The Apostles” ends with Christ’s Ascension. “The Kingdom” is almost a meditation on what followed in the founding of the early church, the Kingdom of “Thy kingdom come”. At a time when the church seems hell-bent on self-destruction, when we are all seduced by the certainties proposed by a ‘me’-centred secularism, Elgar, from a century ago, offers us his vision, in his words as well as his music, on the directness and simplicity of faith. Perhaps the people in the audience seemed so enthralled because they were hearing afresh a work of incredible beauties – even by Elgar’s elevated standard – that comes already burdened with a sense of loss as the message of Christianity fades in and out of focus. It’s also exceptional that an oratorio, traditionally the redoubt of now-dusty nineteenth-century worthy pieties, wrapped up in a choral collectivism that Elgar himself referred to as “the penalty of my environment”, should seem to have had so much to say about the current craving for the life of the spirit – so long, it sometimes seems, as it’s not Christianity.
This was a magnificent account. Mark Elder has a great love for the score and a lucid understanding of how it works structurally, and how its orchestral virtuosity and choral subtleties continually jostle for supremacy. The orchestration has all the deft immediacy of the much-later Symphonic study that is Falstaff, and the chorus in all its hugely varied music was as understated a protagonist as each of the four soloists, and stunningly well sung by the London Symphony Chorus, pinning us back with an overwhelming “O ye priests”, and delivering a first Pentecost of awe-inspiring power. The combination of the work’s minimal narrative (not the case in “The Dream of Gerontius”) and Elder’s objective approach to the music and its web of thematic references provided the perfect context for its mysteries to bloom, with superb playing from the LSO, of the sort that makes you wonder, all over again, how Elgar could hear and achieve such a depth and iridescence of sound.
In the central role of Peter, Iain Paterson (a finely sung Don Giovanni for ENO under his belt this season) had authority, directness and passion as the rock on which the church is built (he is just as impressive on Elder‘s recording of “The Kingdom”, on the Hallé’s own label) and was unforgettable in Part Three’s “I have prayed for thee”. Stuart Skelton sang in spite of an occasionally-audible chest infection. He was at his considerable best in the Arrest scene of Part Four, and his lyricism was not too compromised. (Both men are in ENO's forthcoming "Parsifal", which opens on 16 February.) The mezzo part of Mary Magdalene is not that large but Sarah Connolly was compelling in “And suddenly there came from heaven”, and her duet with the soprano that opens Part Two was similarly absorbing. Susan Gritton (a late replacement for Cheryl Barker) was consistently very fine as Mary, and transcendentally intense in “The sun goeth down", which in her moving performance became the logical resolution of everything Mary prayed for in the ‘Magnificat’.
An hour or so before the LSO concert, five Guildhall Artists (senior students at the Guildhall School for Music & Drama) played Elgar’s Piano Quintet, a late and very grand work. It was given a terrific, rhapsodic performance, one fully alive to the piece stretching the boundaries of chamber music.