Ever since the current London Symphony Orchestra season was announced, Elgar's The Kingdom under the baton of Mark Elder has stood out for me as a potential highlight. Not only is it my favourite of his big choral works, but when Elder brought the Halle to Edinburgh to perform The Dream of Gerontius in 2009 in was an extraordinary experience. (Preferring The Kingdom almost certainly puts me in a minority, but I have good company from the likes of Adrian Boult.)
From the outset, Elder had some handicaps to contend with this time. Some, such as the harsh and constraining acoustic of the Barbican Hall and the lack of an proper organ, were largely beyond his control. Others, such as the decision to split the work in two, were not. This was done in Edinburgh too and in both cases was doubtless to prevent the loss of interval bar takings. On both occasions it lessened the dramatic impact. It wouldn't happen in Mahler 3 (a work of comparable length), and doesn't any longer in the Verdi Requiem. It is a pity Elgar's choral works do not seem to have outgrown the practice.
From the opening bars it was clear we were in for a special treat orchestrally, and as the main theme was introduced for the first time it brought a tear to my eye. Elder drew out some of the finest playing I have heard from the orchestra and displayed a mastery at building the emotional swells that are so critical to great Elgar. In terms of tempi it seemed slightly higher octane than his superb recording with the Halle.
Unfortunately, this fine start was not representative of the performance as a whole. The quartet of soloists wasn't as solid as it needed to be. Diction was almost uniformly poor and, without the text provided in the programme, it would would have been next to impossible to follow the words. Bass Iain Paterson was perhaps the worst culprit in this regard, his performance generally felt somewhat lacklustre and he seemed almost uncomfortable on the stage, constantly fiddling with his jacket, his bow-tie or his score. In fairness, he was better after the interval, but it was not the commanding performance the role of Peter calls for.
The outstanding vocal contribution came from Stuart Skelton (who recently impressed in a concert performance of Act I of Die Walkure). Despite suffering from a chest infection, he still delivered a clearer reading of the text than any of his colleagues and found the emotion and drama required.
Of the women, Sarah Connolly had the better diction and gave a fairly solid performance but soprano Susan Gritton, while generally fine, disappointed in the famous The Sun Goeth Down. She was often out of breath, whereas a truly great reading should feel effortless. The late great Margaret Price, who died this week, and who can be heard on Boult's superb recording, was in no danger of being outclassed.
The London Symphony Chorus did not seem at the top of their game. Producing a very sibilant sound, it felt altogether as though they had not been thoroughly enough drilled in the run up to the concerts. The precision in entries and exits that marks a really great choral performance was not there.
It wasn't the case that there were howling errors, and indeed beneath it all the orchestra were exemplary. Similarly, Elder time and again reminded us exactly why he is rightly regarded as one of the finest Elgar conductors of his generation (or, indeed, any). His judgement of volume, often taking things down to a beautifully soft level, ensured the climaxes had the impact they should. Yet, despite all that, despite some thrilling moments, it didn't quite come together and transcend in the way Gerontius did in Edinburgh and that The Kingdom can and should.