mon 27/05/2019

The Kingdom, London Symphony Orchestra, Elder, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

The Kingdom, London Symphony Orchestra, Elder, Barbican Hall

The Kingdom, London Symphony Orchestra, Elder, Barbican Hall

Elgar and Susan Gritton show off the genius of early and Anglican Christianity

Albrecht Dürer's 'Peter and John Healing the Cripple': The winning early church formula
So Starbucks-like is its reach, so tarnished its modern legacy, it's easy to overlook just how brilliant the ideology of Christianity is. How seductively counterintuitive the idea of a God who was not just a man but a bum of a man must have seemed. Not until the Arab warrior Muhammed came to his calling was Christianity's first strategy seriously challenged. That winning early Christian message, which sought to seize hearts and minds through self-effacement, is what Elgar seems to seek to capture in The Kingdom. It was receiving a rare performance last night at the Barbican.

That is not to say that the derring-do element of the early church, the swashbuckling Holy Spirit, its great Pentecostal winds and psychedelic sallies, doesn't play a part. It certainly did in Sir Mark Elder's conception of the piece. Few orchestras in the world could have done a better impression of the Holy Ghost than the London Symphony Orchestra. They caught the stormy opening - the shards of brassy light breaking through the gusts - wonderfully, and engrossed us throughout Part Three's rich tapestry of sounds: its whistling organ stops and fugal complications.

But the overwhelming feel of The Kingdom is of supplication, perfectly symbolised by what Diana McVeagh calls "the dropping chords" in the final bars. Sighing musical phrases litter the score. The self-sacrificial nature of the early Christian church, as well as that of Anglicanism (a branch of Protestantism that looked with more reverence to the early church than any other), could not have been better evoked. Every dynamic and melodic direction bowed before us like branches of a willow. Elgar is here summoning up the early Christian experience and reminding audiences of their own Anglican tradition.

Nowhere are those genuflecting subito pianissimos more clear or moving than in the apotheosis to the Third Part. The powerful London Symphony Chorus, soloists and orchestra all vied to out-hush each other in their glory to God. The Christian message couldn't be clearer: less is more. One of the most rewarding musical moments in the work, Mary's schizophrenic aria, "The sun goeth down", has a similar purpose. Here, in the shape of a member of the holy family, we encounter again the counterintuitive duality of early (and Anglican) Christianity: outward anxiety and inner fervour.

Susan Gritton stepped into the breach at the last moment, as in a memorable Stabat Mater late last year. She replaced an indisposed Cheryl Barker this time, and almost came out the strongest link in the chain. Mary has just witnessed the incarceration of Peter and John for their proclamation of Jesus's resurrection, and with it perhaps the end of the church. Gritton has to drag herself from this vale of sorrows into a Joan-of-Arc moment of visionary frenzy. She did this, then withdrew her voice, allowing the orchestral colours of the opening (a Mahlerian night music of power and grace) to subsume her.

In the final benediction, gilded ever so lightly by a sunny rumble of trumpets and drums, a church appears to arise

Leaving well behind him a few iffy operatic outings earlier in the season, Iain Paterson also impressed. His unrushed, beautifully articulated delivery drew us in whenever it came to talk to us. Poor old Stuart Skelton was under the weather but still gave a heroic performance as John. Sarah Connolly's part was too small to figure much  - though she added a lustre to the quartets.

The choir needed its hand held, which Elder did, navigating them through the hills and valleys of this deceptively simple religious narrative. Like a seasoned Sherpa, he knew exactly how to manage the climbs and descents. The drooping quality returns. The Lord's Prayer bends its head and the men sing almost inaudibly to the Father. Then, in the final benediction, gilded ever so lightly by a sunny rumble of trumpets and drums, a church appears to arise.

Listen to an excerpt of Part Four of The Kingdom, including Mary's aria "The sun goeth down" sung by Margaret Marshall, performed by Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra
Susan Gritton has to drag herself from a vale of sorrows into a Joan of Arc moment of visionary frenzy

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Sarah Connolly was indeed wonderful - Susan Gritton almost the same (from where I was sitting - perhaps The Barbican is an ungrateful acoustic to fill but she made her mark well, and I have heard her sing the same part in a cathedral, where the acoustic helps greatly. Iain Paterson, however, was unconvincing. The role he takes demands great authority and in too many places he was prioritising the art and the sound but failing to ensure the diction and fully committed expression of the text. I saw and heard Christian Gerhaher in Tannhauser in December and he is simply in a different league - I don't expect to hear words sung more expressively or with more accuracy and truth to the composer's intention than I heard from him. There are other singers able to deliver the part of Peter - Peter Savidge for one. The LSO are of course wondefully skilled and the LSO chorus likewise. As an infrequent attender at The Barbican I found the acoustic very brash, verging on the unbearably shrill - I'd rather travel to Symphony Hall, or perhaps more pertinently ensure I hear Mark Elder and the Halle on home territory as we are lucky, after the departure of Richard Hickox, to have him as a champion (of real commitment) of Elgar's sacred choral works .

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