United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (2) Parry, Elgar: Clare Rutter (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Magnus Walker (tenor); Ashley Riches (bass); Jonathan Hope (organ);Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra/Adrian Partington (conductor), Gloucester Cathedral, 23.7. 2016. (JQ)
The Holy City and the Heavenly Kingdom
Elgar – The Kingdom, Op 51
It must be the stuff of nightmares for a conductor. You’re about to conduct a complex work that isn’t standard repertoire and on the day of the concert one of your soloists is obliged to withdraw due to illness. That happened to Adrian Partington at last year’s Three Choirs Festival when the bass soloist had to withdraw from the performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (review). So I imagine that he sighed wearily when, ninety minutes before the start of the morning rehearsal for this performance of The Kingdom, lightning struck again. This time his scheduled tenor soloist, James Oxley pulled out. Now this isn’t a role that all tenors have in their repertoire; you can’t just call up another tenor at such short notice. Well, you can in Gloucester, it seems. Into the breach stepped Magnus Walker, a choral scholar in the Gloucester Cathedral choir. Though he’s a mere 18 years old he came to Gloucester a year ago with a strong pedigree, including a number of important solo singing competition victories and membership of Ralph Allwood’s prestigious Rodolfus Choir. None the less, it must have been a daunting prospect for this young man to step onto the Three Choirs stage with the benefit of just one rehearsal. Introducing the concert and announcing the change of soloist, the Dean of Gloucester assured us we wouldn’t be disappointed; he was right.
In 2010 Adrian Partington chose The Kingdom for the opening concert of his first Three Choirs Festival as Artistic Director (review). On that occasion we heard nothing but Elgar’s oratorio. Tonight, as a preface, we heard Parry’s Jerusalem. This was far from inappropriate because Parry’s great tune, setting William Blake’s words, is 100 years old this year: Parry composed it in March 1916. On this occasion we heard the piece as Parry intended with a soloist singing the first verse – here Sarah Connolly did the honours – after which the audience, with great gusto, joined the choir in singing the second verse. Mr Partington will have been familiar with this original version, not least because he prepared the BBC National Chorus of Wales for their 2012 recording of this and other Parry pieces under the baton of Neeme Järvi (review). Parry’s own orchestration was used tonight and while it was good to hear his version given an airing it has to be said that the more commonly used scoring by Elgar is much more colourful and inventive.
The Kingdom, premièred in Birmingham in 1906, was Elgar’s third and last oratorio. It 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 it 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. The Apostles tells the story of Christ’s ministry on earth and does so in music that is dramatic, indeed often quasi-operatic. The Kingdom, though it has some dramatic episodes, is essentially more reflective in tone. Tonight we heard a reading that paid due heed to the reflective side of Elgar’s work but which was also keenly dramatic at times.
The soloists were all allotted characters by Elgar. 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.
Claire Rutter took the soprano role in Sir Mark Elder’s splendid live recording of the work in 2009. I found much to admire in her performance then (review) but I was not quite so impressed this time. Her voice was well matched with Sarah Connolly in the lovely duet that forms Part II of the work (‘At the Beautiful Gate’) and Miss Rutter was never less than a reliable member of the quartet. The soprano has one of the two key solos in the oratorio: ‘The sun goeth down’, which concludes Part IV. The aria opens and closes in rapt meditation but the central part of the aria is a rapturous, dramatic affair. I though Claire Rutter sang the aria well but I missed much of a sense of rapture; she didn’t really convey the meaning of the aria to me. Mind you, I don’t think it helped that here and throughout the performance Miss Rutter, unlike her three colleagues, seemed to make little or no eye contact with the audience; she appeared to be singing from her score to a surprising degree and this hampered communication. Overall, I have to say that I expected rather more from this singer.
Sarah Connolly represented luxury casting in the mezzo role and apart from one small slip in Part III, she was her usual reliable self. She sang, as ever, with lustrous tone and her several passages of narration were put across splendidly. The narration at the start of Part IV (‘The sign of healing’) was especially fine, both in terms of how the story was told and as a piece of singing per se.
As I said earlier, it must have been a daunting assignment for Magnus Walker to step into the tenor role at such short notice but if he was nervous he showed no signs. Inevitably, given his age and at this stage in his vocal development his voice is not as large as those of his three senior and vastly experienced colleagues. However, everything that he sang was clear – in terms of both words and music – and completely accurate. Adrian Partington must have been mightily relieved to have so reliable a substitute and one who needed no ‘nursing’ through the performance. But more than that, Walker didn’t just sing the music; he sang the role. His important solo in Part IV (‘Unto you that fear His name’) is a rhapsodic piece of writing with a demanding tessitura. Walker sang it with fine assurance. He had every reason to be proud of his contribution to this performance and at the end Adrian Partington rightly singled him out for a well-deserved bow before anyone else. Magnus Walker leaves Gloucester shortly at the end of his year at the cathedral and he will study with Ben Johnson at the Royal Academy of Music. Don’t be surprised if he returns to the Three Choirs before long as a soloist in his own right.
The key solo role is the bass (or baritone) role of St Peter. Tonight Ashley Riches was on duty and he gave an outstanding performance. Earlier this year I heard him sing the role of Jesus in a performance of The Apostles which Adrian Partington conducted in Gloucester Cathedral. I was impressed then but the bass role in The Kingdom is much bigger and infinitely more vocally demanding. Riches met every challenge of the part successfully. In particular, he was excellent in Peter’s long solo in Part III (‘I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not’). Riches sang this with firm, well focused tone and the high-lying parts of the solo held no terrors for him. The sound he produced gave great pleasure but just as pleasing was the conviction with which he put across the words and the music. Those last two sentences can be taken to apply to his singing throughout the evening; this was a very fine performance.
The Three Choirs Festival Chorus made a strong contribution. On several occasions they were challenged by Adrian Partington’s bracing tempi but these challenges were successfully met. The singing was focussed and committed and they were not drowned by the orchestra. My only criticism would be that Elgar’s quiet dynamic markings were often insufficiently observed; we didn’t often hear a genuine piano or pianissimo from the choir. There were occasions, too, when I would have like the Philharmonia to play just a little more quietly. Having said that, the richness of tone that the orchestra produced – for example in an outstanding account of the Prelude – was very satisfying and there was much evidence of attention to detail. I was delighted by the sensitive solo playing of the orchestra’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay at the beginning and end of ‘The sun goeth down’.
Adrian Partington is a highly experienced and perceptive Elgarian who has a deep understanding of this composer’s music. Tonight he showed a complete command of the score and his usual attention to detail and ability to galvanise large forces. My one reservation concerns some of his tempo selections which seemed to me surprisingly swift. For example, the section ‘In Solomon’s porch’, where the chorus express disbelief at the Apostles‘ ability to speak in tongues, was taken very briskly. The sense of tumult and the Jews’ incomprehension was conveyed thrillingly; however, I felt the music was, perhaps, being pushed on just a little too frantically and there was a danger, just avoided, of a lack of clarity. Immediately before that passage, the episode where the Holy Spirit descends on the Apostles (’And suddenly there came from Heaven’) was very exciting but arguably just a bit over-driven. I admired greatly the dramatic thrust of the overall performance – Elgar is a dynamic composer, after all – but sometimes I longed for the music to be given just a bit more space. The magnificent close to Part III had grandeur – how could it not? – but just a touch more expansiveness would have imparted the true exaltation in the music. On the other hand there were many places where Mr Partington’s direction was sure-footed. The masterly shaping of the Prelude was one such example and in the closing sections of the work (‘The Breaking of Bread’ and ‘The Prayers’) he invested the music with just the right degree of spaciousness and lyrical flow so that the oratorio ended with a radiant glow.
The performance was greeted with acclaim by a capacity audience. The series of major evening concerts at this years’ Festival had been well and truly launched with much more to look forward to in the coming week.