The Kingdom is the sort of piece the Royal Albert Hall was built for. It has plenty of dramatic music for a large chorus, and most of its musical gestures, even the quiet ones, play out on a grand scale. It’s not Elgar’s finest work, but it’s music written with great passion and personal investment, a fact acknowledged by the Proms the last time is was chosen to open the season, in 1934 as a tribute the recently departed composer.

Sir Andrew Davis © Chris Christodoulou
Sir Andrew Davis
© Chris Christodoulou

Given its lack of broad appeal, The Kingdom was certainly a brave choice for a season opener. It turned out to be a good one though, because the various BBC ensembles brought together for the event were able to present it in the best possible light. Andrew Davis – a Proms regular, though not in recent years – is a dependable Elgar conductor. His performances and recordings of Elgar’s symphonies with this orchestra in the 1990s showed a gently radical tendency: accents were emphasised (sometimes to a fault) and performance directions in the scores were followed to the letter, even when they contradicted performing convention. But even then, he always let the music flow, and his interventions never seemed unnatural. Similarly this evening, Davis took a relatively broad approach, but always lyrical, and although the details had clearly been well rehearsed, the music always seemed spontaneous. He never managed to make it light, the whole conception is far too ponderous for that, but a fine a balance was struck between the weighty spirituality and the music’s inner life.

The four soloists are not often heard together, which is just as well as this evening’s group was quite a diverse bunch. Christopher Purves, as St Peter, gets the lion’s share of the solo work. It’s a demanding sing, especially as Elgar often resorts to long, undifferentiated lines to fit his own, not particularly musical, libretto into the music. Purves began well, but his voice deteriorated significantly as the performance progressed. A chest cold or similar may have been to blame, as his vocal endurance, well beyond the requirements of this work, have regularly been demonstrated on the opera stage in recent years.

Erin Wall © Chris Christodoulou
Erin Wall
© Chris Christodoulou

Catherine Wyn-Rogers, as Mary Magdalene, is also kept busy. Her slightly introverted tone, and her pronounced throat vibrato, threatened her projection early on, although Davis was keenly aware of this and brought the orchestra right down. But her more ebullient numbers later on were better balanced, when the impressive character of her voice became a real asset. Soprano Erin Wall and tenor Andrew Staples both gave excellent performances, but neither have very much to sing here and both seemed woefully underused, especially Wall, whose “The sun goeth down” was the highlight of the evening.

The two choirs, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales, combined to a formidable vocal ensemble, occupying about three quarters of the Albert Hall’s choir stalls. But even at this size the choir was able to maintain impressive ensemble, tuning and balance. The orchestra and soloists were good too, but it was the choral singers who were the real stars of this concert, giving Elgar’s score the atmosphere it required, the volume, the substance and the gravitas. Elgar’s very Edwardian and very Catholic religious sensibilities may seem like inconsequential relics of a bygone era when the work is performed by lesser forces, but these choirs were able to bring it all to life.

****1