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This review is from: The Kingdom (Audio CD)
Elgar's "The Kingdom" had a checkered preparation. It was Elgar's final act of salvage from the ruin that was to have been his hugely ambitious cycle of oratorios based on the foundation of the early Christian church. All of this is filtered through his hyper-romantic Edwardian sensibility. It's relative failure in popularity was a profound career-altering experience for him. "The Kingdom" is the second part of the tale following on from Christ's ascension, that ended the first part, called "The Apostles". Elgar: The Apostles It has tended to lie in the shadow of that work and the even greater popularity of "Gerontius". The "action" centers on the inspirational descent of the Holy Spirit on the founders of the early church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. I have had the experience of singing this work as a member of the chorus and bought this recording to help me prepare for that performance (and because I had grown to love the work, too).
This is not really a dramatic work at all but rather an extended spiritual meditation of extraordinary power. Although the soloists are named Peter, John, Mary and Mary Magdelene these are really generic, rather than dramatic protagonists. They could be anyone (or everyone?). Elgar does not get truly under the skin of any character as he did with Judas. The greatest dramatic moments come from the numerous recollections from "The Apostles," and these borrowings tend to highlight the fact that the drama of the earlier work is largely missing from this one.
However, whatever reservations I might have about the work I would not be without it. The consistency of expression and the skill and beauty of the writing sweep the listener along irresistibly. Right from the outset the prelude grips and, in spite of my comments about the leitmotifs from "...Apostles" there are plenty of stunning and original touches (including THAT tune with it's rising three-note figure that will probably haunt you for weeks). The performance is superb; paced with wonderful skill and with a quartet of youthful voices that could not be bettered in a thousand years. Not only do we get Margaret Price singing a magnificent "The Sun Goeth Down" but all the singers give us something close to genius. I cannot let pass the comment in another review that talks about "English oratorio hootiness" that "goes with the territory" from the young (Australian) Yvonne Minton. He can't have been listening to the same recording as me. Such a youthful voice and with faultless intonation. This must be John Shirley-Quirk's finest recording and SO good to hear the under-recorded Sandy Young singing so beautifully.
Boult seems to me to understand these works better than anyone before or since and he directs the choir and orchestra to give of their best as well. The choir are enthusiastic and committed but not flawless. The descent of the Holy Spirit and the conversion of the crowd in Part III is magnificent and includes some of the finest music Elgar ever wrote. The ending of the whole piece is an original setting of the Lord's prayer that feels a little emotionally flat, although its calm beauty grows on me with each hearing. The recording is very fine, if not quite up to a modern digital recording and suffering slightly in comparison with Boult's own recordings of "...Apostles" and "...Gerontius".
Although many may feel that this is the least satisfactory of the three oratorios, this is a rather pointless observation (A bit like saying that Wells Cathedral is slightly less satisfactory than Salisbury). It is better to know and love them all.
The filler on the second disk is the Coronation Ode. A thoroughly rumbustious and uncomplicated work that includes a choral setting of that great tune from the first Coronation march. Now you can learn the words properly for the Last Night of the Proms. It is expertly directed by Philip Ledger with an earlier incarnation of my own choir. The most remarkable thing about this recording (beside the fact that it is very good) is the engineers' extraordinary success in capturing such a lovely sound in the notoriously difficult acoustic of King's College Chapel. Very atmospheric and jolly. Strongly recommended.