First Night of the 2014 Proms – Elgar’s The Kingdom
Helen Wallace finds Andrew Davis on fine form
The Kingdom was a curious opener to the 2014 Proms season. Its rather placid devotional atmosphere is as remote to a 21st century audience as a souped-up Handel orchestration or Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. How much more immediate are Bach’s coruscating evocations of suffering than the stately serenity of Elgar’s idiom? We can almost taste the turtle soup and feel the pinch of the corset. When the disciples are filled with the holy spirit ‘as of the rushing of a mighty wind’ the very last thing we expect to hear is the complacent splendour of an unhurried march.
And yet, taken as the slow movement to what was to have been a mighty triptych, beginning with The Apostles and ending with The Last Judgement, its obscure atmosphere begins to clarify. There may be a lack of dramatic tension – the apostles are arrested, but quickly released, end of story – but, as Sir Andrew Davis so ably revealed, in its inwardness lies its beauty. The key lines in the libretto Elgar himself culled from the Bible are: ‘the Kingdom and patience, which are in Jesus’. Patience, another highly unfashionable quality, but one required of a conductor prepared to allow this work to blossom and glow.
After the brindled, volatile opening the music settles into that tender, undulating melody, whose loveliness permeates the whole work. Once one’s ears had adjusted to the Royal Albert Hall acoustic, and tuned into the upper strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, there emerged a performance of transparent subtlety. Christopher Purves brought a touching humanity to his role as Peter, something that was heightened, not diminished, by occasional hoarseness, while Catherine Wyn-Rogers excelled both as Mary Magdalene and the narrator with fiery clarity. Andrew Staples depicted John with clarion confidence; Canadian soprano Erin Wall was less consistent, but rose to the challenge of ‘The Sun goeth down’ with the aid of Stephan Bryant’s ardent violin solos drawing her in, and James Burke’s limpid clarinet entwining with her voice at its close. Davis drew gossamer textures from the joint choruses of the BBC SO and the BBC NCW, especially in a transporting Lord’s Prayer: there’s nothing quite like 100 male voices singing pianissimo.
Of course, it isn’t all hushed: Davis injected menace into the arrest; the choruses’ antiphonal exchanges were dynamic in the Pentecost episode and the final section in the Upper Room opened with a glorious blaze. But tension dissipates rapidly in this work, as Elgar focuses in on his plain-speaking individuals, the simplicity of breaking bread.
And perhaps, in the end, this muted introduction to the season made sense. Just as The Kingdom was Elgar’s farewell to the oratorio form, so last Friday was Roger Wright’s final day as director of the Proms. He will be keenly missed.