Elgar: The Kingdom
Snape Maltings Concert Hall
2nd May 2015
As a curtain-raiser to Sir Adrian Boult’s 80th birthday, this distinguished Elgar interpreter was given the choice to record a major work by the Worcestershire-born composer with the London Philharmonic for EMI. One might have expected him to choose The Dream of Gerontius but, instead, he went for The Kingdom, a work, of course, he greatly admired and one that Elgar wrote at the height of his powers and one that showed off his consummate skill as an orchestrator. First performed at the Birmingham Music Festival on 3rd October 1906, The Kingdom comprises five separate scenes with an instrumental prelude while the scenario depicts the lives of Jesus’ followers after Pentecost.
I kept thinking of Boult over and over again and the English choral tradition throughout this well-disciplined performance superbly conducted by Richard Cooke, a master of his craft. He was a boy chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral and later a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge and, therefore, steeped in the English choral tradition following in the wake of Boult et al. The concert marked Cooke’s 34th season as music director of the University of Essex Choir while also marking his 20th year as music director of the Royal Choral Society. Last year he chalked up his 30th anniversary with Canterbury Choral Society.
The quartet of soloists were a top team and, indeed, on top form comprising soprano Sarah Fox (Blessed Virgin Mary), mezzo-soprano Gaynor Keeble (Mary Magdalene), tenor Jamie MacDougall (St John) and bass Benjamin Bevan (St Peter). And Ms Fox delivered a superb reading of the star number of the whole work (section iv: The Sign of Healing – The Arrest) in which she tenderly and passionately sang The sun goeth down which had the audience spellbound and silent to the core with an uninterrupted extended silence at the end.
The performance delivered by Ms Keeble was particularly pleasing, too. A rich-toned mezzo, she sang radiantly throughout and her voice projected so well to the audience while the interaction between Messrs MacDougall and Bevan in the final section (The Upper Room – The Disciples and the Holy Women) was sung in an authoritative and relaxed manner.
But the backbone to the whole work is, of course, the chorus and the University of Essex Choir – whose members are recruited from students and staff of the university as well as the local community – excelled themselves. They deserve a big bow. And, indeed, they got one! They showed their mettle coming over as a well-drilled outfit singing with confidence and ease borne by the labours of long rehearsals under Maestro Cooke’s detailed scrutiny while The Essex Sinfonia, led by Elizabeth Cooney, well matched their choral counterparts in every conceivable way producing some glorious and convincing playing.
I’ve only heard this choir on one other occasion when they came to my home city of Norwich a few years ago to perform The Dream of Gerontius in St Andrew’s Hall. I was mightily impressed by their performance then and likewise today. Incidentally, Elgar new the hall well. He often visited the city to conduct at meetings of the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival and conducted Clara Butt – appearing on stage dressed as a mermaid – in Sea Pictures in October 1899. How nice it would be to welcome back to the fine city of Norwich Richard Cooke and the University of Essex Choir.