The British successfully shared their choir tradition in Utrecht’s Vredenburg for Good Friday with an invigorating performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom. Edward Gardner generated enormous power from the Flemish Radio Choir and Dutch Radio Choir, excellently prepared by Edward Caswell. The Dutch Radio Philharmonic delighted with the rich textures of Elgar’s Romantic score. Edith Haller (Blessed Virgin) and Elizabeth DeShong (Magdalene) excelled vocally, while John Daszak (John) and Mark Stone (Peter) did a fine job filling in for the cancellations. As an alternative to the Dutch Bach passion mania this time of year, this programming turned out to be a refreshing alternative.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

With texts from Acts, Elgar composed The Kingdom as five separate scenes with an instrumental prelude. In them the composer depicts the lives of Jesus’ followers after the Pentecost. One of the soloists or the choir narrate through recitatives. Though perhaps not as brilliantly colourful as Elgar’s later concertos or symphonies, this oratorio impresses with immense vocal demands on the combined choirs and the richness in themes.

As Gardner opened with the prelude, layering the many motifs, one could not help but be reminded of Wagner’s leitmotifs, although a lack of transparency made it hard to discern them all. Still, the conductor effectively brought out the dense colours of Elgar’s score. The powerful fortissimos Gardner stimulated from the choir from the first part throughout the final scene provoked many visceral chills. A highlight emerged from Hans Wolters on the oboe as he offered Peter’s motif with generous warmth, which he repeated a few more times throughout the performance. The prelude contains other themes from Elgar’s earlier oratorio Apostles, whereby he linked the two pieces, which were intended to form part of a trilogy, although he was unable to fulfill the demands for the final part, tentatively titled The Last Judgment

As the combined choirs emerged for the opening scene “In the Upper Room”, they were an immediate forceful presence. Peter, John, Magdalene, and the Blessed Virgin alternated with the choir in progressing the narration through recitatives. Gardner guided each soloist’s introduction carefully. With great resonance the voices sung ‘Oh Praise the Name of the Lord’. The second scene “At the Beautiful Gate” depicts the Blessed Virgin and Magdalene recounting Jesus’ suffering to heal the ill. Ms Haller and Ms Deshong demonstrated their chemistry in this delicate back and forth, offering beautifully hushed moments for contemplation.

The central part of the work resonated most powerfully. In his passages in “Pentecost”, Daszak produced several of the high points of the night. His role was taxing but he impressed greatly with his endurance. He sustained the tension and kept the momentum going. Here, the apostles speak in tongues, leading Gardner to stimulate the high and low strings to a frenzy while they performed the repeated run of the fire tongues’ motif. Truly thrilling.

With only a brief break for retuning, Gardner continued with the fourth scene “The Sign of Healing”, in which Peter and John are arrested for their preaching. Stone produced a highlight with his ‘Unto you that fear his name’, devoutly caring and utterly convincing. Brass erupted in brief, glorious impositions, followed by the exquisite solo by concertmaster Joris van Rijn on the violin, disarming the preceding authoritarian march with great sensitivity. He introduced Ms Haller’s extensive monologue ‘The sun goeth down...’ that led to another memorable demonstration of her vocal prowess. Far reaching, enduring, and gracefully piercing, the Italian soprano sung as the conductor garnered a pure glow from the strings to accentuate her sensitive nuances. 

After Ms Haller’s finesse, Gardner launched into the final scene “The Upper Room”, in which Peter and John are released, but denied to preach. Gardner pushed the choirs forward through the imposing fortissimo currents of ‘Lord thou didst make...’, then deftly decreasing the force into the surprisingly soft-spoken finale, while sustaining the impressive tension in a soothing pianissimo from the choir, until the hushed, contemplative climax. 

****1