Prom 37: Elgar: The Apostles (Elder, Hallé, Imbrailo, Groves, Coote, Bayley)
Elgar: The Apostles
The Angel Gabriel/Mary: Rebecca Evans
Mary Magdalene/Narrator: Alice Coote
John/Narrator: Paul Groves
Jesus: Jacques Imbrailo
Peter: David Kempster
Judas: Clive Bayley
Apostles: Thomas Cameron, Thomas Kelly, Timothy Langston, Thomas Morss, Adam Player, Stefan Berkieta, Matthew Kellett, Graham McCusker, Daniel Shelvey
Hallé Choir (Frances Cooke)
Hallé Youth Choir (Richard Wilberforce)
London Philharmonic Choir (Neville Creed)
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
BBC Prom 37, Royal Albert Hall
10 August 2012
At the moment, nobody does Elgar better than Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé. In my opinion their outstanding own-label recording project – which reaps the benefits of the Bridgewater Hall and decent production values – shows that nobody has ever really done Elgar better, but that is bound to be a minority opinion. Despite the image conjured by a knight of the realm conducting a northern orchestra with massed choirs, Elder’s Elgar manages to escape the pedestrian paternalism of the old breed in favour of something much more fluid – like the composer’s own recordings. Nor is he keen to wallow in Elgar’s post-Victorian grandeur, but rather to show his connection with contemporaries. Above all, in Elder’s case, that means Wagner. The Apostles, which is the first of an unfinished trilogy, is saturated in leitmotifs (one Elgar acolyte counted 92), although they are so clearly derived from one another that they work more like those in Parsifal than Götterdämmerung – indeed, with the prominence of themes referring to the Apostles, to the Disciples, to Christ/God/God’s kingdom, each given repeated solemn orchestral statements, Parsifal never seems far away. Elgar’s key shifts and chromaticism never come with quite Wagner’s ease, though.
The Apostles is always the bridesmaid of vast Elgarian oratorios. It doesn’t have the easy flow of The Dream of Gerontius – and at sounds much weirder in the orchestra – nor the monolithic grandeur of its successor piece, The Kingdom, which carries on with the same leitmotifs. These things aside, though, Elder’s Proms performance made it difficult to see why The Apostles is so neglected. This was a singularly affecting performance not least because it brought out the humanity of Elgar’s composition, the poignant situations of the Apostles themselves, and even the intimacy of this work. Basically this is a Passion story, though it takes in a lot on the way to the Ascension: the Beatitudes, Mary Magdalene’s redemption (just as with Kundry in Parsifal), the walking-on-water bit, Peter’s betrayal, and a long monologue from Judas. The focus is less on Jesus than on those around him, with Elgar’s express intentions to humanise the Gospel so that we can see our own follies in Judas, our own sins in Mary Magdalene, our own fears in Peter. It’s an exhausting spiritual journey, especially when performed as here with conviction and without any sense of irony – and a vastly-conceived musical one too. Elgar here is at his most reticent – if one can be reticent with a 400-strong chorus, a shofar, and a full Wagnerian orchestra – and he saves the choral bombast for the Ascension.
An odd work, then, but a superb experience. Elder paced the two hours of music perfectly, never dwelling unnecessarily and marrying the Hallé’s typically refined Elgarian sound to a rarified intensity. Even with the chorus and soloists at something approaching full volume the orchestra managed to penetrate the din to keep the thematic interest going. And when they were placed in the spotlight – especially in the rather obviously Ring-like dawn and storm sections – it was perfectly clear how great an orchestra this group have become under Elder. There was excellent choral singing, too, which isn’t always possible when grouping disparate choirs. Yet the clarity found by Elder, Frances Cooke, Richard Wilberforce, and Neville Creed gave this singing an exquisite other-worldliness when required, and a full-throated power elsewhere (especially at the dawn and Ascension – what an orgy of fear and glory Elder whipped up here).
Our sextet of soloists were of a similarly high-standard. Jacques Imbrailo was a noble, internally tortured Jesus, clear of tone and immaculate of diction and intonation. Likewise one could hardly have hoped for more from David Kempster’s Peter: I don’t know whether it was intentional, but a preening shake of the hair when Imbrailo anointed him as the rock of the church was one of several touches that humanised this performance. Paul Groves is becoming an Elder-Elgar veteran, and although heft is never a strong point with this tenor the pay-off of precision is worth the cost. Alice Coote is always immaculate, but sang here with an uncommon intensity as Mary Magdalene, summoning up all the sympathy for this character that the Biblical authors did not. Rebecca Evans was slightly less convincing in the first half, with a rather thin tone, but this disappeared later on. Clive Bayley, massively voiced in the John Tomlinson mould, made it difficult to sympathise with Judas, for whom Elgar writes rather too much rambling monologue to make his point that Judas was only trying to drive Jesus onto greater things. Bayley’s over-egged early interjections made it hard to get his Hunding out of my head – and hence Judas’ malevolence. Elder’s addition of a chorus of music-student apostles – added by Elgar in his 1921 revisions – certainly made sense, and they sang with such conviction that one wished Elgar had written a few more solo lines for them.
The recording is available for 7 days on the iPlayer here. A recording of The Apostles with roughly the same forces joins The Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom in the Hallé’s recording catalogue soon. Buy it at any cost.