Festival Music

Elgar’s The Kingdom

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

three stars

MY father sang in the chorus at the earliest Edinburgh Festivals, and although I don’t know whether the music of Elgar featured in any of those concerts, I do recall that he did not look forward to performances of The Dream of Gerontius, the composer’s most regularly sung work.

The Kingdom was the central part of a never-completed trilogy of oratorios on the story of the Christian Church that began with the now equally rarely heard The Apostles. In what is a busy and challenging year for the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, it is debatable if this was the best choice of showcase for a choir on excellent form. On top of reservations about the work itself, this concert, with The Halle orchestra from Manchester, was beset with personnel problems. Firstly it lost its conductor, Sir Mark Elder, who was presumably one of the instigators of the inclusion of the piece in the 2019 Festival. And at the last minute both mezzo Alice Coote and American tenor Michael Fabiano called off for health reasons, replaced by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, as Mary Magdalene, and David Butt Philip as the apostle John.

With Martyn Brabbins a very popular choice of replacement on the podium, especially as his 60th birthday had just been celebrated in fine style at the BBC Proms by our own BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with a concert that included the best-known instrumental music by the same composer, the Enigma Variations, the singers who stepped in both performed well, but were outshone on the night by the survivors of the original bill, soprano Natalya Romaniw, fast becoming a favourite in Scotland thanks to her work with Scottish Opera, and baritone Roderick Williams, who is already well-established as such. As the piece unfolds – and it does so with a less than compelling flow – it is the character of Peter, sung by Williams, that does a lot of the heavy lifting, and has the best of the interaction with the chorus. But the libretto is often a long way from poetry and the melodies in the score (and Elgar knew how to write a tune) seemed a great distance apart.

The Festival Chorus sounded a rich-toned and precise across all the sections as it has throughout the Festival, but it is a blessing that it still has Britten’s War Requiem on Saturday to look forward to.