LSO/Hickox – Elgar’s The Apostles (4 April)

The Apostles, Op.49

The Angel – Claire Rutter
Mary Magdalene – Alice Coote
John – John Mark Ainsley
Peter – Roderick Williams
Jesus – James Rutherford
Judas – Alastair Miles

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 April, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Apostles is the first in a projected trilogy of Biblical epics that Elgar was to leave unfinished and which, together with The Kingdom, is the culmination of the oratorio tradition that dominated music in England during the preceding century and a half. This fact is significant here because, unlike Sakari Oramo’s performance in Birmingham last October, Richard Hickox’s account of The Apostles was demonstrably and unmistakably inside that tradition right from the outset.

Thus his spacious approach to the choral Prologue which both sets the spiritual scene and introduces those motifs to be transformed during the piece. Here and in the climaxes Elgar places sparingly but unerringly over its course, the London Symphony Chorus sang with a vibrancy that did justice to those blazes of inspiration which motivate the biblical narrative. It was less convincing in the often subtle and intricate writing for semi-chorus; a degree of exposed intonation undermined the inner intensity of the music at these points. This and a relatively generalised approach to dynamics and enunciation made the performance less engrossing at times than it might have been, compounded by Hickox’s reluctance to treat the first half as an unbroken, intensifying trajectory – culminating in the chorus set-piece “Turn you to the stronghold”, which sounded a little tepid.

Musical tension was more keenly sustained across Part Two – which deals swiftly but powerfully with events from the Arrest to the Crucifixion, before opening out magnificently at the Ascension. Stephen Betteridge’s skills as Assistant Chorus Director, who had trained the LS Chorus for this performance, were challenged to the full, and he was not found wanting.

The solo singing was generally impressive. John Mark Ainsley brought a supplicatory intensity to the role of John, though some strained top notes seemed only partly due to the awkward tessitura. Roderick Williams was affectingly vulnerable as Peter – overshadowing the often-generalised nobility of James Rutherford’s Jesus, who nevertheless stamped his vocal authority on the Ascension scene. Claire Rutter had the purity of tone for the Angel and Mary, though her vocal delivery was under- projected, while Alice Coote – her voice tellingly poised on the contralto cusp of the mezzo range – thoughtfully brought out the operatic realism that informs much of the writing for Mary Magdalene.

Thoughtful too was Alastair Miles’s portrayal of Judas, caught between Jewish patriot and follower of Christ. Pointedly disruptive in his initial contributions, he brought earnestness to the confrontations which open the Betrayal, while the anguish of his temple soliloquy – reproach gradually overcoming self-justification – infers ambiguities at the heart of Elgar’s considered realisation of his character.

Despite the flaws in the choral contribution, balance between chorus and orchestra was as astutely judged as one would expect from so seasoned a choral conductor as Hickox. If Oramo seemed more readily to convey the relevance of the work for our own time, the sense of a work emerging out of the tradition which gave rise to it was itself impressive – reinforcing the nature, disquieting and consolatory by turns, of Elgar’s Biblical odyssey.

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