The Apostles, Op.49
The Angel Gabriel / Mary, the Blessed Virgin – Rebecca Evans
Mary Magdalene / Narrator – Alice Coote
John / Narrator – Paul Groves
Jesus – Jacques Imbrailo
Peter – David Kempster
Judas – Brindley Sherratt
Chorus of Apostles – Sean Boyes,Thomas Cameron, Thomas Kelly, Timothy Langston, Thomas Morss & Adam Player (tenors); Stefan Berkieta, Matthew Kellett, Graham McCusker & Daniel Shelvey (basses)
Hallé Youth Choir
Sir Mark Elder
Recorded 15 May 2012 in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, England
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: September 2012
CD No: HALLÉ
CD HLD 7534 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 54 minutes
Sir Adrian Boult’s burnished 1974 recording of The Apostles opened many ears to this flawed gem of an oratorio. Alas, the choral sound on that pioneering EMI set betrays its age now, so this magnificent Hallé recording, captured on the wing in Bridgewater Hall, is welcome not just as a sensitive realisation of Elgar’s sprawling edifice but as a like-for-like replacement for the old’un. Tremendously well recorded by Steve Portnoi, it finds conductor, choirs, orchestra and six distinguished soloists all on prime form.
In structure and texture, The Apostles is less a companion piece to The Dream of Gerontius than it is, say, to Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Yet the prologue, ‘The Spirit of the Lord’, includes in its rising orchestral figures a clear nod to his earlier work – which Elgar himself proclaimed a masterpiece (famously declaring on the manuscript that “this is the best of me”). Perhaps he was acknowledging common ground between the two compositions before diverging from Gerontius’s dramatic pulse towards a more ascetic, spiritual pathway. Small wonder, though, that it struggled to find admirers in its early days, for in essence The Apostles is a pious meditation intended for absorbed listening. It has precious few ‘knock-’em-flat’ moments and only gradually does its devotional profundity seep into the listener’s consciousness.
Although the score’s inspiration sags in places (the cod-Eastern percussion in Part One takes some swallowing), Mark Elder’s reading of it is marked by complete conviction. His attention to detail ensures the presence of an authentic ram’s horn shofar in Part One, its raw colour considerably more striking than the customary trumpet alternative. The inclusion of this obscure instrument is typical of Elder’s meticulous attention both to small things and to the architectural whole.
A superb solo team gives its all. Jacques Imbrailo makes a shining first appearance as Jesus, his authority and warmth cutting through the ensemble at “Behold I send you forth” and sustained on his every utterance thereafter. In Mary Madgalene’s anguished prayer, meanwhile, a less-than-white-hot Elgar may simply trundle through the text at “Hear and have mercy”, but Alice Coote redeems the illustrative note-spinning with a performance of seraphic commitment. Coote is joined by Paul Groves (Gerontius on Elder’s recording) in the split role of Narrator, a task they both undertake with impassioned gravitas, and there are exemplary contributions too from Rebecca Evans and David Kempster.
The finest pages of this score rank among Elgar’s greatest inspirations. ‘By a Wayside’ bristles with imagination and life; ‘In Capernaum’ has glimpses of Wagnerian beauty and Judas’s remorse is powerfully underpinned by subtle orchestration. Yet, even in that last example, The Apostles manages to frustrate. Elgar eschews storm and stress and makes little attempt to inhabit the betrayer’s turmoil, and only at the end of his extended solo does Brindley Sherratt locate within his part a half-glimpse of Judas’s self-torture. This splendid operatic bass seizes that moment with intensity and total engagement.
The last moments of both Jesus and Judas are conflated into one brief orchestral death throe. Whether Elgar found the occasions too vulgar or too sacred to be dwelt upon, their absence smacks of late-Victorian fastidiousness. After the curiously matter-of-fact reappearance of Jesus at the resurrection, though, Elgar moves towards a conclusion of ineffable rapture, and for twelve extraordinary minutes he sheds his Englishness, his tics and all his emotional shackles in order to glorify God with uninhibited musical honesty. Here Elder, who clearly recognises the epilogue’s splendour, rouses the Hallé instrumental and choral forces (impeccable throughout) to near-flawless heights of harmonious articulation. Elgar’s text is included in the booklet.