Performances of Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom are a rare but very welcome event, even more so at a time of ever-increasing secularisation. So, in an age of declining religious observance, it was heart-warming to see Winchester Cathedral packed for a work concerned with the foundation of the early Christian church, its missionary work brought together by the calling of twelve ordinary young men from Jerusalem.

The Waynflete Singers and Andrew Lumsden © Joe Low
The Waynflete Singers and Andrew Lumsden
© Joe Low

Mercifully, there were no sounds of Christmas jingles filtering in from the adjacent ice-rink to sour the glorious sounds of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and an augmented Waynflete Singers (150 voices) giving expression to some of the finest choral music Elgar ever wrote. Even Sir Adrian Boult, who made the first recording of The Kingdom, considered it a cut above Gerontius. But Elgar’s setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem is a consistently inspired work, and while The Kingdom is less dramatic, its loosely conceived narrative tends to be more episodic. Yet it’s a powerfully symphonic score, not least its chiaroscuro orchestration and thrillingly accomplished choral writing, both containing a wealth of rewarding themes.

Setting a text of Elgar’s own choosing and largely drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, The Kingdom (1906) picks up where his earlier oratorio The Apostles left off. If the dramatic focus at times feels slack, stirring choruses, including a vividly evoked Pentecostal fire, and some luminous solo writing are brilliantly woven into the work’s radiantly dignified fabric. It’s an oratorio that simultaneously consoles, enlightens, stirs; its text, without sermonising, recounts and states ideals.

Andrew Lumsden led off with an initially forthright Prelude, fully capturing the Apostles striding out into the world to spread the Good News. It was a flowing and rousing account balancing opulence and transparency, eloquence and involvement too. The well-rehearsed chorus were in fine fettle, bringing spiritual uplift with assured singing, notably confident in densely contrapuntal passages and in the climactic “O ye priests” that had just the right degree of weight and emotional intensity. The higher reaches of the soprano writing felt a little stretched in the Mystic Chorus, but there was no denying the zeal of the gentlemen for their stirring evocation of the rushing of the Pentecostal wind, tenors rising to the occasion and splendidly endowed with the Holy Spirit.

Honours were somewhat unevenly shared among the four soloists who were well matched as a group but were unable to leave a consistently favourable impression individually. In the central role, bass-baritone Stephan Loges bestowed Peter with a compelling sense of humanity, no stained-glass figure here, but despite his suitably hectoring tone when condemning those who crucified Christ, upper notes sounded uncomfortably strained. Ed Lyon’s rapier-like tenor wrapped itself around the role of John with considerable ease, projecting top notes with operatic fervour. Eleanor Dennis (replacing soprano Sophie Bevan) as the Blessed Virgin Mary and Katie Bray as Mary Magdalene duetted persuasively in their reminiscences of Christ’s healing powers, but the much-loved soliloquy “The sun goeth down” never quite convinced, intimacy of expression traded for lavish tone, the whole given beguiling violin support from BSO leader Amyn Merchant. More appealing was Bray’s commanding mezzo, especially ear-catching for the boldness of “the rushing of a mighty wind” and denunciation of the arrest of John and Peter.

Under Lumsden’s assured and unfussy direction, the BSO were ardent collaborators in a performance of striking certainty, served by a dedicated chorus gripped with conviction.

****1