United Kingdom 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)
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.