Music review: London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Mark Elder does Elgar without a hint of tweediness.

The Kingdom - Elgar
The Barbican, 30 January

If Elgar's great oratorio The Dream of Gerontius doesn't quite begin with a whimper, it's certainly not with a worldly bang either. The orchestral Introduction - radiant and delicately exploratory questioning from the strings - already seems to have bridged the heavenly divide, to have made the journey together with the "alleluia from earth to heaven". Saturated in Newman's Roman Catholicism, Gerontius is the stuff of air, a work from beyond the veil; The Kingdom, by contrast, is all emphatic earth - a work that can gaze and reach upward, but whose feet of clay root it perpetually in the human.

The verdict of history has been with heaven, but a few champions (Sir Adrian Boult loudest of all) have claimed The Kingdom's right to sit alongside Gerontius among England's choral masterworks. As a work of national character it is arguably the greater, trading the Wagnerian influences of Gerontius for a distinctive musical vernacular. Not two bars of the Prelude, with its yearning flourish of strings and brass, pass before we are securely in Albion. Every musical device colours more vividly the landscape - the transient world of "dustceawung" (contemplation of dust) that has shaped Englishness from Anglo-Saxon lyric verse through Lycidas and of course Gray's "Elegy".

The danger of so much national fervour is that it can all too easily feel dated - the death-throes of a moustachioed relic, grasping after faith in an age of atheism. Thanks to Mark Elder and the generous virtuosity of the London Symphony Orchestra however, there wasn't a tweed-clad or jingoistic moment to be found. Big orchestral gestures (matched by big-voiced soloists and the might of the London Symphony Chorus) gave Elgar's expansive work the space and sincerity it needed to escape the snare of kitsch.

Pacing - so essential if the oratorio's meandering narrative through the New Testament is not to pall - was swift, Elder's articulate advocacy manifesting itself in quality of sound rather than any lingering over climax or melody. The part-writing of The Kingdom is astonishing, prefiguring the Symphony No. 1 that Elgar was shortly to produce. Here, in the Barbican's rather close acoustic, it retained its textural clarity while still providing structural blocks of primary colour - colour gilded by the justly-celebrated LSO horn section.

With illness doing its usual winter worst, soprano Susan Gritton was a late stand-in for Cheryl Barker, whose chest-infection had also spread to Stuart Skelton - singing, but with no small struggle. It was an interesting substitution; while Gritton possesses a sheen at the top of the voice that Barker lacks, there is a groundedness and focus to Barker's tone that I did miss, particularly through the more sustained passages and duet of Part II. It was in "The sun goeth down" however that Gritton's vocal shading and spun pianissimo came into their own, matched for fretful loveliness by leader Tomo Keller's solo line.

In recent appearances at English National Opera, Iain Paterson's particular gift for expression has been submerged, and so it was a delight to hear him in the role of Peter, coaxing line and phrase into ever more delicate contortion. "Repent and be baptised", with its first sung iteration of the climactic "in the name of Jesus Christ" theme, would have defeated even the most disenfranchised of Englishmen. Despite Skelton's illness, the pairing of these two voices made a persuasive case for ENO's forthcoming Parsifal in which they will take the roles of Parsifal and Amfortas.

Conceived as a continuation of The Apostles, with the possibility of a third and final work still hovering in its themes, The Kingdom glances both forward and back. Any performance of worth retains this sense of contingency, of an utterance in a silent dialogue. It's grounds for many to discount the work, but in the hands of Elder and Boult it is reconceived, reworked as a symbol of earthly faith - a gesture never freshly begun, nor ever fully completed, but necessarily and potently unfinished.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear