I little dreamed, when noting the compact disc release of Adrian Boult's recording of Elgar's "The Kingdom" two years ago, that the intervening months would bring us not one but two additional versions of this most sublime of English oratorios, the first almost on the heels of that review.
That was Leonard Slatkin's, on RCA, a remarkable outing for a conductor whose Elgar credentials up to that point had not been particularly auspicious. But auspicious turns out to have been the word as he has now followed that up with no-less-formidable recordings of the "Enigma" Variations, the "Cockaigne" and "Froissart" overtures, the Serenade and, most resoundingly, the Second Symphony.Auspicious in terms of "The Kingdom," too, given Chandos' new recording under Richard Hickox, a follow-up to their recording of "The Dream of Gerontius." I have not heard that set but would be interested in doing so since he sheds a different light on its more neglected successor.
For one thing, the conception itself strikes me as more inherently dramatic, from the more sharply driven "Jerusalem" Prelude to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, with its thrilling highlighting of the brass. Unfortunately that sometimes has the effect of overwhelming the chorus and, occasionally, the soloists. But nowhere would I accuse Hickox of being insensitive to the more ethereal aspects of the score, arguably its finest moments. He just doesn't invest them with the radiance and grandeur one hears on the other two recordings.
Especially Boult's EMI set, which at times attains a divine repose. He also has the best of it vis-a-vis the soloists, although both Slatkin's and Hickox's mezzos, Alfreda Hodgson and Felicity Palmer respectively, are clearly up to their assignments. Conversely Margaret Marshall's big aria, "The Sun Goeth Down," finds her at her least effective, with an ill-controlled top. And despite some sensitive singing earlier, bass David Wilson-Johnson, as Peter, doesn't sus-tain the great Pentecostal scene as memorably as the otherwise less-impressive Benjamin Luxon, for Slatkin.
For all the warmth and feeling the latter brought to his direction of the oratorio, though, there was little there to prepare me for the magnificence of his recording of the Second Symphony, to my mind the finest of the digital era. Indeed at times the American conductor challenges Boult's supremacy in this music, balancing not only spaciousness and impulse - as Giuseppe Sinopoli's monolithic DG recording too often fails to do - but a sense of the music's ebb and flow with a remarkable ear for instrumental detail.
Thus, despite its brisk tempo, the third movement has plenty of air in its less-rambunctious portions. At the same time the percussive writing emerges with unusual clarity, as do the important brass interjections in the finale. Yet accents and phrases in the slow movement are leaned into in all the right places; ditto the bigger pages of the finale.
Unfortunately that same sense of breathing with the music is not always present in Slatkin's recording of the "Enigma" Variations, which takes an almost elegiac view of the piece.
On repeated hearings I find that lends an interesting hesitancy to the statement of the theme itself, as well as a darker hue to much of what follows, a stance the conductor himself defends in the notes. What it does not do is respond very open-heartedly to the score's more exuberant pages (e.g., the "W.M.B." variation, here positively sluggish) or invest "Nimrod" with much nobility or lift.
You will hear more of that on David Zinman's new Telarc recording, a more conventially proportioned reading that is nonetheless thoughtfully detailed. In short, a thoroughly safe recommendation that, except for its Monteux-like "Nimrod," never quite makes it to the top rung, despite its superior recorded sound.
Ditto the accompanying "Cockaigne," which for all its breadth somehow lacks the punch of Slatkin's. As for the other fillers on these discs, Slatkin's "Froissart" is at once more expansive and more finely chiseled than Boult's. Similarly I find his String Serenade more poetic than Zinman's, which seems a bit literal by comparison. And although I would not have thought either "Sospiri" or the early "Sursum Corda," for organ, strings, brass and percussion, particularly apt couplings for "The Kingdom," Hickox does them both proud.