Notes and Editorial Reviews
Boult has inspired his forces to give their best, and you feel that every one of them are participating wholeheartedly not only as their tribute to a great conductor but also to do full justice to the superb music of Elgar.
Many readers will know from EMI's announcements that Elgar's oratorio, The Kingdom. was scheduled for recording. They. as all others to whom this is news, will rejoice that their often expressed and fervent wishes over the years at last find fulfillment: and it was an imaginative gesture to plan this first-ever recording of the great work as a birthday tribute to Sir Adrian Book who. incredible though it sounds, will be 80 years old on April 8th.
The Kingdom is one of Sir Adrian's favourite works and the superb interpretation he gives of it, born of long experience. reveals the true stature of the oratorio. Indeed, Sir Adrian almost wins me over to his considered opinion that "there is a great deal in The Kingdom that is more than a match for Gerontius. I feel it is a more balanced work and throughout maintains a stream of glorious music, whereas Gerontius has its ups and downs". Percy Young describes it as "essentially reflective the slow movement, so to speak, of the whole intention of the uncompleted trilogy".
That is well put. The Kingdom is not so grand or dramatic as The Apostles but it is more human and intimate. Elgar's portrait of Judas in The Apostles was original and vivid and, in comparison with it Peter was a shadowy figure; but in The Kingdom he stands out as the prince of the Apostles. with authority and a fully formed character. John and Mary come much nearer to us. also, in this work.
In July 1906, four months before the first perforniance at Birmingham on October 6th, Elgar wrote to A. E. Jaeger ("Nimrod" of the Enigma Variations), his faithful disciple. "I am just completing the final version of my notes and sketches: the whole thing is intentionally less mystic than The Apostles—the men are alive and working and the atmosphere is meant to be more direct and simple". Jaeger was determined to do all he could to help the public to appreciate The Apostles, so novel a form of oratorio, and so he got Elgar's permission to write a close analysis of the work, illustrated by 92 musical illustrations, all given names. This analysis was bound up with the libretto and published by Novello, and made available before the first performance. Elgar saw the danger of Jaeger's Teutonic thoroughness and wrote to him. "I think too many names are confusing. I have a feeling that if the principal motifs are baptized the others had better go unbaptised (hut not unblessed)". So the number of names was somewhat reduced. Later, Jaeger performed the same service for The Kingdom.
I regret that Percy Young refers to only one of the motifs, for as the principal ones so frequently recur it would have been a great help to the listener to have been given a short musically illustrated guide to them. Fortunately a number of them appear in the splendid Prelude to the work. First the Gospel theme, given out by the Full orchestra. then the theme characterising the Apostles (Elgar based this one on a fragment of plainsong he found in the Gradual for the Feast of St Peter and St Paul. the text of which begins "Thou hast made them chiefs of the people"). The next theme, with brass prominent, portrays the Apostles as preachers of the Gospel. A sudden diminuendo leads to a two-bar theme associated with Christ's loneliness and sorrows, and a little later to Peter's own theme, here most poignant. It is used several times when Peter speaks of Him. Elgar said that none of his themes represented the Kingdom for "the Kingdom includes everything", and the noble march-like theme we next hear stands for the new faith. The sequence of descending chords near the close of the Prelude and again at the end of the work represents Christ the Redeemer. The mosaic-like sequence of themes which are a feature of the writing throughout the work, both here and even more in The Apostles, has been much criticised, as has the predominance of 4/4 time. Boult handles both matters with such conviction and subtlety that one forgets these criticisms and his vital on-going rhythm pervades the performance and holds up the structure where it tends to be weak.
In the Prelude, which shows the London Philharmonic in grand form in all departments, Elgar concentrates a good deal on the strings and brass—the first most eloquent and lovely, the second blazing out finely. The first scene, in the Upper Room, brings the four soloists and the chorus before us. After the long Prelude it was a masterstroke to have them enter in three unaccompanied bars. Elgar, in this chorus, introduces into the music a theme derived from the plainsong Eucharistic motet 0 Sacrum Convivium, beautifully used. Margaret Price's voice in this—her first major recording—rings out gloriously in the great phrase at "Thine almighty Word leaped down from heaven out of Thy royal throne"; it made me look forward eagerly to her singing of "The sun goeth down" in Part 4. There is a first-rate balance in this section between the orchestra and the LPO chorus —who are in the same fine form as they were in the recent EMI recording of Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony, no weaknesses there or here in tenors and basses. Already John Shirley-Quirk has asserted his authority as Peter, but I shall reserve further comment on him until we come to the great solo in Part 3. Elgar finds a striking phrase of just three notes for "0 ye priests!", in which the chorus exhorts them to remember their high calling. This forceful exhortation seems to reflect Elgar's anti-clericalism!
Part 2, "At the Beautiful Gate", begins with a duet for The Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene in which Margaret Price and Yvonne Minton are well matched. The mystic chorus—so named—that sing in the Pentecost scene might well have sounded more remote. It falls to Yvonne Minton to describe the coming of "the mighty rushing wind" which she does with much dramatic power. Peter, after the exciting chorus that follows, addresses the people, beginning quietly but with the orchestra blazing out the preachers' theme at the end of his first sentence. Then, still quietly, he speaks the great words "In the last days I will pour forth my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams". During this the orchestra plays the noble melody of the new faith, here in C major, and at the repetition in E flat with heightened emotion. John Shirley-Quirk's singing of this solo is magnificent. He makes one see Peter reliving the past, the denial, the Crucifixion—"they all forsook Him and fled"—the Resurrection, "Simon Peter, lovest Thou Me more than these? . . . Feed my lambs". Not only here but whenever thereafter he sings it is the same: this is a truly inspired performance. To him is given the first singing of the memorable phrase "In the name of Jesus Christ", which is taken up at first in octaves so thrillingly by the chorus at the close of this Part.
Part 4 starts with a most melodious pastoral-like Introduction, in which the woodwind are delightfully prominent. The scene is the healing of the man "lame from his mother's womb". Alexander Young is given his chance here in a solo marked molto cantabile which he sings very expressively and later he is joined by Shirley-Quirk. A short dramatic passage about the arrest of John and Peter by the priests and Sadducees, dramatically proclaimed by Minton, leads to the beautiful transition to the eventide and Mary's great scena. The pure tone of the leader of the orchestra in the violin solo is tenuous, which one must suppose is what Boult wanted. The solo is certainly not meant to stand out but I could have wished for a little more volume. Margaret Price's creamy tone is so lovely that the first time one hears the solo one can think of little else. The high notes are perfectly centred, the climaxes radiant, especially the grand one at "The Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world", which is most thrilling Elgar wrote this solo with Agnes Nichols's voice in mind. She had— as she told me herself—a heaven-sent mezza voce—something, she said, that can't be taught; and, as I well remember, it made her singing of "the kingdom and the patience which are in Jesus" incomparably moving. Price does not seem able to achieve very fine-spun tone, but she does make the phrases sound soft and beautiful and ascends exquisitely to the final high note of the scena. There is more interior emotion in the music than she finds here, but I am grateful for her expressive and beautiful singing of the solo.
Part 5, which like Part I, takes place in the Upper Room, has the deeply moving scene of the partaking of the Bread and Wine, with Peter as minister and it is followed by the simple setting of the Lord's Prayer. The last words we hear are "Thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer, and we are Thine": the final bars softly and briefly recall the theme of the new faith.
The recording is one of the finest in the field of choral music EMI have ever made; perhaps, indeed, the finest of all. As I have said, Sir Adrian Boult has inspired his forces to give of their best and you feel that every one of them—soloists, chorus and orchestra—are participating wholeheartedly not only as their tribute to a great conductor and a personality of rare charm, integrity and simplicity, but also to do full justice to the superb music of Edward Elgar. Christopher Bishop has again shown his outstanding qualities as a producer of choral music and the engineers have also done splendid work.
-- Gramophone [4/1969, reviewing the original LP release of