For the second of their two concerts celebrating the 150th anniversary of Elgar's birth, the Hallé and Mark Elder presented the composer's third and final oratorio, The Kingdom.
Originally conceived as part of a trilogy with the better-known The Apostles and The Last Judgement (which Elgar never got round to writing), The Kingdom was composed between 1905 and 1906. Many of the themes within the piece derive from The Apostles, which deals with the selection of the apostles by Christ and their reaction to his death. In The Kingdom, Elgar explores the teachings of the disciples, the way they worked miracles and their treatment by the people of Jerusalem. In choosing texts from various parts of the Bible to focus on certain dramatic incidents for his own purposes, the composer followed the path of Bach's Passions.
Musically, the piece is a little uneven. Because it is consciously less flashy than The Dream of Gerontius, some of the music is pleasant but bland.
The use of choral forces is beautiful, the orchestral writing is subtle, and the use of leitmotifs is often very effective (especially the accompaniment of the line 'in My name' with cor anglais and two cellos in the first part - wonderfully creamy in this performance by the Hallé).
Yet I wonder at times whether more discipline and thought on Elgar's part could have added clarity and drive to the narrative. It seems odd to have a vital piece of information being delivered by a solo singer when the chorus is singing something different and the orchestra is playing at full force. Also strange is the division of a single line between two different characters, something that happens several times: I thought only lovers were meant to finish each other's sentences? And in terms of musical form, there is a disparity of style between sections which are dramatically vivid - such as the conversation between the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene in Part Two - and those which are rather static and stilted in the Handelian oratorio mould (such as Part Five).
That said, the Hallé presented a moving and largely convincing performance of the piece, giving it such energy and vitality that any doubts about the composition itself were minimised. Mark Elder has a natural ability to command large forces without undue flamboyance and a more atmospheric interpretation could not be imagined. The only problem was the tendency of the orchestra to drown out both the singers and even the choir, at times.
The Hallé Choir made gorgeous sounds, with the sopranos perfectly on pitch and the whole body singing with dignity and a sense of the pure style of the English choral tradition (right down to their lavish formal uniforms). However, from first to last it was difficult to make out the words without reading them from the programme, and this was the fatal flaw of the evening: without being fully engaged with the moment-by-moment progress of the story, occasionally the performance seemed just a little dull.
Of the four soloists, two were outstanding. Alan Opie had by far the biggest part as St. Peter and he engaged with the words throughout. His big address in Part One was well projected and put the performance into a high gear. Similarly, Sarah Connolly sang the mezzo-soprano part of Mary Magdalene with energy and sparkle, attacking the text with a regal poise that seemed appropriate to the religious text. As ever, her combination of vocal splendour, crisp articulation and engagement with the audience made her stand out.
Also impressive, Gwyn Hughes Jones has a jewel of a Welsh tenor voice and produced some lovely lyrical singing - a shame that Elgar didn't give him more to do in the character of St. John.
Unfortunately, I felt that German soprano Anja Kampe was ill-suited both to the part of Mary and to the work in general. Although her voice is lovely - she will suit the part of Senta in the Royal Opera's new production of The Flying Dutchman in 2009 to perfection - she struggled with the English text and was glued to the score throughout, rather than communicating with the audience. Despite leader Lyn Fletcher's outstanding violin solo at the start of Mary's 'The sun goeth down', Kampe's vocally and physically effortful singing seemed wrong for the Virgin Mary and spoiled this exquisite solo (which is written with the detail of an operatic scena but did not benefit from an over-theatrical performance here); more composure and less abandon was needed.
Nevertheless, this was a splendid evening, showcasing the Hallé's talents to the fore. Trumpet fanfares, sinuous cello lines, floating harp arpeggios and graceful flute solos: all were magnificently delivered by an orchestra that seems to have no weak links or flaws. The London orchestras should beware: their Manchester rival is at the top of its game.