Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Elder @ Barbican Hall, London

30 January 2011

Mark Elder and the LSO took to the Barbican stage on Sunday night to give a rousing and at times moving performance of Elgars last contribution to religious music.

The Kingdom follows directly on from the composers second oratorio The Apostles (indeed, it adopts many of its themes) and is concerned with the disciples work for the Church in Jerusalem after the death of Christ. While The Kingdom is certainly less complex both musically and dramatically than either of its predecessors, the choral writing is arguably finer (even when compared with The Dream of Gerontius), and it certainly plays a greater role in the oratorios overall composition. Indeed, the message of hope and optimism that emerges over the space of the oratorios five parts was conveyed most effectively by the London Symphony Chorus, whose seemingly bottomless reserves of enthusiasm must result in large part from Elders inspirational guidance.

The Chorus singing in general was very well enunciated, incisive and brimming with vitality: a rather impressive close to Part I was bettered only by the quite wonderfully executed canonic entries in Part V (Lord, behold their threatenings) and the powerfully moving section preceding the final Our Father (We thank thee, our father, for the Life and Knowledge). Only occasionally did the soprano line seem wanting (the Mystic Chorus in Part III contains some softly sustained and high melodic lines that brought about a slight dip in tone quality) but on the whole this was faultless singing.

With regard to the four soloists, soprano Susan Gritton (stepping in at short notice for the unwell Cheryl Barker) lent a wholesome, round sound to her characterful interpretation of the Virgin Mary. Her expertly controlled and gloriously sustained delivery of Marys soliloquy in Part IV (The sun goeth down) was particularly impressive, and all the more memorable as this aria surely contains some of Elgars finest writing. Singing with a rather earthier tone than mezzo Sarah Connolly, Gritton nevertheless seemed well matched with her roles namesake, especially in their duet in Part II in which Mary and Mary Magdalene reminisce over Jesus miracles. Connolly herself was generally very impressive, particularly in her pure and ever more fulsome upper range. A fantastically sustained recitative section at the start of Part IV (in which John and Peter recount their recent arrest) stood out, together with her characteristically assertive stage presence.

Stuart Skeltons interpretation of John was lent an unintended air of dramatic tension following the announcement that he was suffering from a chest infection. This became apparent only every so often, but it was clear that he was struggling somewhat, particularly with sustaining quieter lines. The moments when he was able to open up and find some added resonance revealed a boldness of tone and an impressive upper range: the numerous top As in his and Peters exchange in Part IV were sung with admirable bravery.

Iain Patersons interpretation of Peter was in marked contrast to Skeltons John. His was a very easy, pure, resonant bass sound, perhaps slightly too light in places, but generally very well sustained. He exuded a sort of quiet fortitude, and provided an utterly mesmerising moment in Part III when he sang two lines quoting Jesus words (printed in brackets in the programme) as an aside from the rest of the dramatic action, off copy, and with compelling focus.

While the soloists on the whole had numerous moments that impressed (but fewer which genuinely inspired), for me it was all about Elders vision and his control over the orchestra and the chorus. The melodic playing in the strings was full of expression and tenderness, and at other times rhythmically pronounced and effortlessly dynamic (the opening to the Prelude seemed to set the tone for the rest of the night). The orchestral diminuendo that brings Marys soliloquy in Part IV to a close was brilliant and touching, and the orchestral accompaniment in general was musically very sensitive. But it was the oratorios ending that lingered for hours in my mind, with Elder and his forces breathing a collective sigh of pure, emotive simplicity.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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