HOPE AND GLORY, OR HOPE ANYWAY
DAVID BRYSON | Glossop Derbyshire England | 01/29/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"By Elgar's time `oratorio' had become a word to avoid. In my own view, Handel's great invention found one and only one worthy successor in Haydn. There might have been another if Schubert had lived longer, because his unfinished `Lazarus' is not only fine music but actually goes some way towards anticipating the continuous style that Elgar adopts here in The Kingdom. I know of no evidence that Elgar was influenced by Lazarus, but it appears he took some hints from Gounod's Redemption and also from a work by Philipp Wolfrum, of which I am unencumbered with knowledge. He was also working in the shadow of Wagner, and that raises basic issues too in respect of The Kingdom. For the rest, I'm not surprised he did not want to associate himself with the wretched oratorio-mongering of the Victorians, not just Gounod and the English professorial school but even, sadly, so great a composer as Mendelssohn.
Boult is pretty categorical in his belief that The Kingdom is a finer work than the better-established Gerontius. From a purely musical standpoint, I guess he is probably right. From my own point of view, there's more than that to the question. Gerontius is at least clear about what it is, and what it definitely is not is an oratorio. The Kingdom has the true oratorio feel to it, with or without the name. The text, unlike that of Lazarus, is scriptural, part Acts part Gospels, and it seems to me that there are right ways and wrong ways of setting scriptural texts. One right way is as in the Bach Passions, where the scriptural narrative is simply given as recitative. Another right way is that of Messiah, with the prophetic messages dwelt on at length, as befits their significance for believers and atheists alike. What convinces me a lot less is treating them in something like the way Wagner treated his own libretti. Obviously Elgar modifies Wagner's plan considerably. With him it is the voices that carry the thread of the action, not the orchestra as with Wagner, but that just compounds the problem with so much of the text crying out for treatment at length but passed over summarily as if it were any old libretto. I have no problem with a use of `Leitmotiv' along something like Wagner's lines, although I'm not sure that anything except the 4-note rising phrase heard first in the prelude really qualifies for that expression, but one aspect of Wagner's influence that I truly deplore is his way of writing for the chorus, which Elgar mitigates, but for me not enough.
As far as the performance is concerned, I suppose Boult epitomised the interpretation of Elgar for two or three generations. The soloists are a fine group of experts in the matter too. There is the occasional touch of English oratorio-contralto hootiness from Yvonne Minton, but not to excess and I accept it as all part of the general approach. The recorded sound, dating in the first place from 1969, is also perfectly good, with excellent balance among the massive and varied forces that the score demands.
There is a filler too, and a very good one. Did you know who wrote the words of `Land of Hope and Glory' to the great familiar tune from the first Pomp and Circumstance march? Just acquire this set and you will find out. Hurry while stocks last."