The Apostles, Op.49
The Angel Lisa Milne
Mary Magdalene Louise Winter
John John Daszak
Peter Neal Davies
Jesus Gary Magee
Judas Matthew Best
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Choir
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 14 October, 2003
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
14th October 1903 saw the premiere of The Apostles – the first in a projected trilogy of Biblical epics that Elgar was to leave unfinished and which, together with The Kingdom, marks the culmination of the 150-year-old oratorio tradition that had dominated composition in England during that period. Both works have survived the vicissitudes of public taste and critical reception to be considered now among the most significant and wide-ranging works of their era; a status which Sakari Oramo’s centenary performance of The Apostles reinforced in ample measure.
Although the longer of the oratorios, The Apostles dispenses with an orchestral prelude – opting for a choral Prologue which functions as an ’abstract of intent’, as well as introducing the main musical motifs to be evolved, with a thoroughness and imagination often worthy of Wagner, over the course of the piece.
From the outset, it was clear that the combined City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and City of Birmingham Choir were out to do justice to the subtle and intricate writing – impressing with their scrupulousness over dynamics and clarity of enunciation, but also with a real awareness of how the choral writing alternates freely between generalised comment and specific role-playing within and between each section. Such an approach underlies the building of musical tension across Part Two of the work, before it opens out onto the powerful tonal plateau of ’The Ascension’. Simon Halsey’s skills as chorus-master can rarely have been more potently demonstrated.
The solo singing was scarcely less impressive, albeit gaining in conviction as the work proceeded. Both Garry Magee and John Daszak seemed a little uninvolved during ’The Calling of the Apostles’, though Magee overcame some tentative intonation for a moving portrayal of the passage depicting Jesus’s resurrection, while Daszak found lyricism in the awkward tessitura of John’s role. Similarly, Neal Davies gave of his best as Peter in the denial scene, bringing a vulnerability to the part as instinct wins out over loyalty. Lisa Milne was pure-voiced as The Angel, while Louise Winter found anguish and supplicatory intensity in the role of Mary Magdalene that, in such as her solo during ’By the Sea of Galilee’, reinforced the operatic realism of the writing.
However, it was Matthew Best who rightly drew most approbation. Necessarily too, if Elgar’s rounded and deeply thoughtful realisation of the character is to be borne out. Blending in unobtrusively in his initial contributions, he brought dignity to the confrontations which open ’The Betrayal’, while the anguished nobility in his temple soliloquy – vividly dovetailing self-recrimination with self-justification – touched upon the ambiguities of motive and action that lie at the heart of the oratorio as a whole.
Having received glowing notices for his interpretation of The Dream of Gerontius three years ago, Oramo evinced comparable insight in the more discursive canvas of the present work. The orchestral introduction to Part Two, sensitively moulded and limpidly shaded, was typical of his conducting as a whole – maintaining continuity through a tight but never rigid control of tension and making light of some of Elgar’s most involved choral textures. Occasional vagaries of balance and suspect intonation mattered little when the context was so persuasively thought through. The outcome reaffirmed the relevance of Elgar’s interpretation of the Biblical drama for the present – disquieting and consolatory in equal measure.