PROM 1:The Kingdom Gets the 2014 Proms Off to an Auspicious Start






 PROM 1: Elgar: The Kingdom, Op. 51. Erin Wall (soprano) – The Blessed Virgin; Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano) – Mary Magdalene; Andrew Staples (tenor) – St John; Christopher Purves (bass-baritone) – St Peter; BBC National Chorus of Wales; BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 18.7.2014 (CC)

Prom 1 CR BBC Chris Christodoulou

Prom 1 CR BBC Chris Christodoulou (L-R) Erin Wall, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Sir Andrew Davis, Andrew Staples and Christopher Purves perform Elgar’s The Kingdom with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales at the First Night of the BBC Proms 2014

And so it comes round again: that inevitable part of Summer that is the BBC Proms. This season seems particularly promising – there are some mouth-watering concerts in store, and perusing the concerts listing when it first came out was a little like “the good old days”, when one really did wish one could attend them all. Tradition is all-important here, of course, and two in particular: the First and Last Nights. It was a rather short First Night this time, but one that encapsulated all that is good about the Proms: English music – choral music, at that – huge performing forces and a stuffed arena.

Sir Andrew Davis’ credentials in English music are beyond question, and he conducted this score with great sensitivity and clarity. Ensemble was never a problem, so the focus was clearly on the trajectory of the music itself. Envisioned as something of a vast “slow movement” between The Apostles (1903) and the projected oratorio The Last Judgement, The Kingdom (1905/6) was apparently rated above Gerontius by none other than Sir Adrian Boult. As a “slow movement”, it has a rather static nature that might seem at odds with the celebratory nature of the opening of a festival. Viewed in this light, it emerged as something of a statement of intent for the serious nature of the programming for the 2014 Proms. There is also the problem that Elgar over-works the one truly memorable idea of the score, the phrase he uses to set ‘In the Name of Jesus Christ’, a lovely phrase, yes, but one that occurs rather too often.

The Prelude set out the stall, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s strings making a beautiful sound. Phrasing was magnificently tender and there was a sense of rightness that pervaded the entire performance: it was not surprising that the performance – given without interval – seemed far quicker than its clock duration, for it was so easy to get carried away by the performance. The choruses were of the highest standard throughout the evening, the preparation obvious in the fine timbral blends. The role of Peter is the first to sing; this is the role that pervades and almost defines the piece. Christopher Purves began in sterling fashion, his voice a joy and the lines delivered with real authority, especially at the “Wagnerian brass moment” of ‘Ye men of Judea’; it was only later that the strain began to tell.

Andrew Staples was the weakest of the soloists, giving us a somewhat bleating St John; in fairness the purity of his upper register did make for a moment of real beauty in his solo ‘Unto you that fear His Name’. The two females voices, Erin Wall and Catherine Wyn-Rogers, worked beautifully together, perfectly contrasted, especially in ‘The Morn of Pentecost’ section of the work’s second panel, ‘At the Beautiful Gate’. It was a pity that Miss Wyn-Rogers employed rather too much vibrat for my taste when in solo mode, particularly in the third section, ‘Pentecost’. But Erin Wall gave a simply lovely, and impassioned, account of the work’s most famous section, ‘The sun goeth down’.

The combined chorus was really the star of the night, a vision arrayed at the back of the hall. Elgar’s use of “choral recitative” (‘They gave forth their lots’) was most thrillingly done, and they were just as convincing in the prayerful ‘Thou, Almighty Lord, hast given food and drink to mankind”’(in “The Breaking of the Bread” section) as they were in the grander outbursts.

In many ways this was a triumph. Despite my caveats, the signs are good for a memorable season.

Colin Clarke



  1. J. Vaughan says:

    I felt that Sir Andrew, his chorus and orchestra, were the stars of the evening, his soloists possibly less-so, though no less than adequate. Yet I also felt that Mr. Purves lacked the authority of a Shirley-Quirk or Luxon. One, and possibly two, who were there told me that he seemed in some sort of distress (my wording), so could he have been at least partially-indisposed? This is the second time of late where I have heard The Kingdom referred to as the slow movement of the projected Elgar oratorio triology. And yet is it REALLY a slow movement since The Apostles contains as much, if not more, slow music? And, though not relevant to my previous sentence, it seems, to me at least, more of a self-contained whole, whereas the end of The Kingdom seems inconclusive, possibly anticipating the unwritten third oratorio?

  2. I listened to this concert from the comfort of my armchair and, despite all the distractions that come with being at home rather than in the concert hall, was riveted. I know the work well having participated in at least a dozen performances and having listened regularly to a variety of recordings. I must agree with the assessments given of conductor, chorus and orchestra but, with the exception of CWR, I was disappointed with the other soloists. I think the tenor was a poor choice for this role and the soprano simply did not have the legato line necessary for Elgar. This was most evident at the start of “The sun goeth down” where there should be a seamless transition from violin to voice: she did get better as this section proceeded. I fear that Christopher Purves was simply not in good form on the night but it should be remembered that the part of St Peter is one of the most demanding in the baritone repertoire.

    As to the comments about the piece itself: well, to my mind, the end of The Kingdom is true to life and represents exactly the state of the Church today. We are indeed waiting, not for Elgar’s unwritten oratorio, but for what was presumed to be its subject matter. Perhaps if the Church did spend more time at prayer in the Upper Room then it might come faster!!

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