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The Kingdom, Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester | reviews, news & interviews

The Kingdom, Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester

The Kingdom, Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester

Elgar yet again at the Three Choirs and as gloriously blurred as ever

The Kingdom: wonderful Elgarian noises wafting round the stoneworkGloucester Cathedral images by Ash Mills

The last time but one that the Three Choirs Festival was in Gloucester the main offering was Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom, and there’s a kind of inevitability about the same work turning up again, same place, same occasion, six years later. After all, the Three Choirs has not survived for almost 300 years by a fidgety policy of constant renewal.

The festival may be a much more varied affair now than in its Barchester days, but the core image is still of a packed cathedral listening to Elgar or Vaughan Williams or Mendelssohn – and all these composers figure this time, with the bold, slightly deviant addition of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which ends the festival on 30 July.

Gloucester Cathedral is one of the wonders of the medieval world (an architect friend from Romania burst into tears when he saw the cloister, with its incomparable fan vaulting). But it actually does Elgar few favours. The Kingdom, though dull as narrative and pallid as drama, is a rich and intricate score whose orchestral detail, especially, cries out to be heard.

Three Choirs Kingdom

Amid these hallowed columns (pictured above), alas, much of it has to be taken on trust. Wonderful Elgarian noises waft around the stonework; the well-placed, well-directed monitor screens confirm that the singers are singing at the right moments, and help you hear that they are singing well. But all the time I find myself wishing that the music were Josquin des Prez or even plainsong, not because of a preference for that music, but because it would be a music that belongs much better in this environment.

All the same, I do have issues with The Kingdom, if not with the Kingdom. First performed in Birmingham Town Hall in 1906, it was the second (after The Apostles) of what was to have been a triptych of biblical oratorios, but Elgar seems to have wearied of the project and never composed the third panel. Unlike the ultra-Catholic Dream of Gerontius (which the then Dean of Gloucester vowed would never be performed in his cathedral), The Kingdom is dramatically milk and water, and reeks of old-fashioned Anglican piety. The four soloists bear the labels of New Testament characters: the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the disciples John and Peter. But the portraiture is phoney. As a contemporary reviewer remarked, they are like figures in a stained-glass window, forever fixed in attitudes of prayer and exhortation.

The music, needless to say, is another matter. Not always quite top-drawer Elgar, it still rises far above the average beatitudinal level of the English oratorio of its day and earlier. It’s a powerful symphonic score by the greatest British master of the genre, and this performance, under the perennially excellent Adrian Partington, did it as much justice as the local acoustics would permit. The Philharmonia Orchestra, likewise regulars here, played with magnificent commitment, the Festival Chorus was terrific, and the soloists coped well for the most part.

Ashley Riches (pictured above right) was outstanding in the commanding bass role of Peter, and Claire Rutter and Sarah Connolly were an eloquent pair of Marys. A very young tenor choral scholar in the Cathedral choir, Magnus Walker, stood in at the very last minute for the indisposed James Oxley, and did wonderfully well in this difficult situation, though inevitably finding it hard quite to match his colleagues for vocal weight. Nevertheless, a name to remember; and remember you heard it first here.

Before the Elgar, we all let rip in the second verse of Parry’s Jerusalem (original, non-Elgarized version), Sarah Connolly having done a brilliant Kathleen Ferrier job on verse one. And in the interval a shaft from the setting sun lit up the cathedral tower unforgettably: divine endorsement, I suppose.

All the time I find myself wishing that the music were Josquin des Prez or even plainsong


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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