Friday, 18 July 2014

Sir Andrew Davis brings a terrific opening concert to the 2014 season of the BBC Proms with a performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom

The First Night of the Proms opened the season this evening (Friday 18th July) in fine style with a very fine performance of Elgar’s great oratorio The Kingdom, Op.51 with Erin Wall soprano (Blessed Virgin), Catherine Wyn-Rogers contralto (Mary Magdalene) , Andrew Staples tenor (St John) and Christopher Purves baritone (St Peter with the BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

The Kingdom, part of a planned trilogy with The Apostles and the never completed The Last Judgment; is often overshadowed by Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. This is a pity because, in many ways, The Kingdom is a very cohesive work that is so full of beautiful moments. Sir Adrian Boult once recalled a great friend of Elgar saying to him ‘My dear boy, beside The Kingdom, Gerontius is the work of a raw amateur.’ A rather strong comment on Gerontius, perhaps, but a valid endorsement of The Kingdom.

Completed in 1906 and first performed at the Birmingham Festival in October of that year, The Kingdom is in five parts and tells the biblical account of the events after the crucifixion of Jesus, with the story of Pentecost, the arrest of Peter, his release and the final Breaking of the Bread with Elgar’s fine setting of the Lord’s Prayer. The text was compiled by Elgar assisted by conversations with his parish priest in Hereford, Canon Dolman.

The Prelude acts as a wonderful introduction, containing so many of the works main leitmotifs or representative themes, here receiving a very dynamic opening that contrasted so well with the more reflective moments. The large forces of these two choirs and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gained so much from the spacious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

Part I: In the Upper Room produced some lovely singing from the choirs, so well blended. Christopher Purves (baritone) as St. Peter brought a performance that was full of expression, though occasionally a little unsteady. Andrew Staples (tenor) as St. John was strong and firm. Andrew Davis moulded the music so well, bringing out some lovely orchestral textures with the Royal Albert Hall organ pointing up the bass textures.

Erin Wall (soprano) as the Blessed Virgin and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto) as Mary Magdalene combined so well in Part II: At the Beautiful Gate with Wall showing a very fine, strong voice and Wyn-Rogers particularly fine in her richer lower textures.

Andrew Staples proved to be very fine again when he sang ‘When the great Lord will, we shall be filled with the Spirit of understanding’ in Part III: Pentecost. Erin Wall really threw herself into the dramatic solo, when the Holy Spirit descends, ‘and suddenly there came from Heaven a sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind…’

Christopher Purves brought a great sense of humanity in his fine solo ‘I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.’; for me one of the most beautiful melodies in this work, leading to the fine conclusion of Part III.

When we arrived at Part IV: The Sign of Healing, Catherine Wyn-Rogers was in fine voice, tender and expressive and Andrew Staples sang beautifully in ‘Unto you that fear His name’, full of power and expression. Indeed both Andrew Staples and Christopher Purves blended wonderfully in the following duet.

In Part V: The Upper Room, Elgar seems to weave so many more of his leitmotif through the music, gloriously played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Soloists, choirs and orchestra brought a terrific final section, not a climax but perhaps the most beautiful setting of The Lord’s Prayer to end this great work.

This was a full blooded performance yet with so many subtle, beautiful moments from one of our finest conductors of Elgar. This was a terrific opening concert to the 2014 season of the BBC Proms.

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