The English composer Sir Edward Elgar is best known for his Pomp and Circumstance marches, and no Last Night at the Proms would be complete without a rendition of his Land of Hope and Glory. So an oratorio might not feature in most people’s understanding of this great musician.
However, the essays in the program guide for the recent performance of The Kingdom by the Melbourne Bach choir tell of this lesser-known aspect of the composer’s work. Reading the notes by Rick Prakhoff (pictured) was a revelation particularly as the conductor confessed to being not alone in his image of Elgar as a “mustachioed Edwardian gent”. By the end of his essay Prakhoff showed such an understanding of the composer’s intent and the details of the work, The Kingdom, that such an image was clearly not the whole story.
As an overall comment on the performance I would say that Elgar was revealed as a composer of great faith and understanding of his subject matter, even with particular insight into the dynamics of Pentecost and the impact on followers of Jesus Christ. The music only fleetingly echoed Pomp and Circumstance, and while at times it was dramatic, it was more often sensitive, lyrical and harking back to an earlier age of composition.
As for the performance of the Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra, with soloists and conductor Prakhoff, it was a revelation. The natural repertoire of this choir would of course be Bach chorales and choruses, including the greater works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The Kingdom is a work that is great in a different way, and I would have to say that the Bach choir made the transition with ease, marshalling the kind of sound that one might expect for Mendelssohn or Brahms. The soloists were well chosen, the orchestra was a fine ensemble and, as you might expect from those comments, this performance was not to be missed.
To begin, the music was quite strong and even filmic, with the large orchestra including percussion. But in no time there was a quiet reflective subject with strings to the fore, a limpid harp and a well-controlled suggestion of brass. Whatever the mood, Prakhoff was calmly in control of the romantic swell of the music as many moments and stories were hinted at and then fulfilled within the work.
The chorus of the disciples and the holy women delivered a good beginning, with clarity and full sound and balance in the choir. The voice of Peter, sung by baritone James Clayton, joined with the choir and also soared above it. This joining of voices was a feature of the oratorio that was often employed by the composer. Mary, sung by Miriam Gordon Stewart, had a strong voice with a pleasing vibrato, and these characteristics matched well with rich-voiced mezzo Deborah Humble in her role as Mary Magdalene. As for the men, both Clayton and tenor Andrew Goodwin had pleasing, melodious voices with the latter stronger than one can usually hope for in the upper range. The women’s duet on the morning of Pentecost was a model of its kind, as each singer was conscious of the other and, perhaps unwittingly, reflected the very words they were singing: “they make sweet melody”.
The section, In the Upper Room, reversed the pattern of an earlier section by having the tenor introduce an aria, to be joined very soon by a chorus of sopranos and contraltos. Into this pattern came the voice of Humble, in operatic mode as she sang the dramatic story of the mighty wind and tongues of fire. Once again the words themselves appeared to be a comment on the singing: “When the sound was heard the multitude came together, and were all amazed, and marvelled.”
And so the work continued. In conclusion, it seems the comprehensive understanding Prakhoff had of this work was communicated to every singer and every musician in the orchestra. The Kingdom was infused with passion, not just accuracy. It was a revelation to those of us who had never heard it before, and perhaps to those who were familiar with it.
The orchestra played not only accurately, but also with great contrasts and sensitivity to the words. The choir and soloists might have been rehearsing for months, they were so well matched. I made copious notes in the margin, but then repeated constantly the words I have just written. I feel I have not done justice to the performance in the way that I might with a work that was more familiar to me. So I hope that the conductor, the soloists, chorus and orchestra will be satisfied with my honest opinion that I could not have had a better introduction to a work that, amazingly, has been outside my radar for all these years. I would gladly go and hear this performance again.