Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 23rd November 2019:
Sir Edward Elgar visualised his own devotional equivalent of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. This would be a triptych of oratorios focussing on the life of the early Christian Church in Jerusalem. Accordingly, the Apostles and the Kingdom were premiered at Birmingham Town Hall in 1903 and 1906 respectively. Sadly, the intended third panel of the triptych, provisionally named the Final Judgement, never saw the light of day.
The Kingdom is often regarded as the finest of Elgar’s large-scale devotional works. Its palette of orchestral and vocal colours is richer than in the Dream of Gerontius. Elgar’s writing for the solo quartet attains even greater operatic heights: St Peter’s long solo narrations are of a Wagnerian intensity and the Blessed Virgin’s beautiful aria The sun goeth down, expands into a full operatic scena.
These factors, plus the scale of forces required, probably account for the work’s rare appearances in the concert hall. Leeds International Concert Season has since the 1980s hosted distinguished performances of both the Kingdom and the Apostles.
Last Saturday’s glowing performance of the Kingdom, conducted by David Hill, was given by 160 voices from the combined Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and Cambridge University Symphony Chorus with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, plus Alan Horsey at the console of the Town Hall’s great organ.
David Hill’s expansive reading revealed the reflective quality and the elusive mysticism of Elgar’s vast canvas. Hill seemed to unify the episodic structure of the Kingdom into a seamless whole, illuminated by transparent orchestral textures and a firm but supple choral line. The stunning attack of the choirs’ opening exhortation, ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness’ filled the barrel-vaulted auditorium. An outstanding solo quartet included the exquisitely spun line of soprano Carolyn Sampson as the Blessed Virgin and the warm timbre of mezzo Jane Irwin as Mary Magdalene. The honeyed quality of tenor Ed Lyon as St John was complemented by the rich sonorities of baritone Gareth Brynmor John as St Peter. His every syllable cut across Elgar’s weightiest textures. The Kingdom drew to a serene and prayerful conclusion leaving us to ponder on the assertion of Sir Adrian Boult that it is indeed Elgar’s supreme choral masterpiece.