Prom 37: Mark Elder conducts Elgar’s The Apostles

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 – Clive Bayley

Chorus of Apostles – Thomas Cameron, Thomas Kelly, Timothy Langston, Thomas Morss & Adam Player (tenors); Stefan Berkieta, Matthew Kellett, Graham McCusker & Daniel Shelvey (basses)

Hallé Choir
Hallé Youth Choir
London Philharmonic Choir

Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 10 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Aldeburgh World Orchestra in Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem at the BBC Proms 2012 (Prom 21). Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe Apostles is an ideal work for the Proms, not just because it is rarely performed but because it suits the Royal Albert Hall. And this deeply moving performance was ideal in most ways, especially in the exceptional understanding between Sir Mark Elder and his 342 choristers, who sang divinely one moment and stirringly the next.

The Hallé elements were well prepared, having already performed the work in Manchester (a soon-due recording made then), but there was no sign that the additional London choristers were any less familiar with the score. Elder, who has emerged as a major Elgar interpreter, managed to exert superb control and bring out the profundity of this masterpiece while never indulging in histrionics. I could have done with more string-players but those who were there played extremely well; and the many opportunities for the wind soloists were fully realised.

Jacques Imbrailo. Photograph: Neil GillespieEdward Elgar, the greatest European composer during the 20 years from 1898 to 1918, understood the human voice but made great demands on it, based on the fine singers who flourished in Britain in his era. Praise be, for on this occasion we heard two vocal soloists with a real legato, a lamentable rarity these days. Rebecca Evans sang so beautifully, and projected so well, that we could have been back in the golden age of English oratorio, with Baillie or Suddaby or Nicholls in action. Jacques Imbrailo similarly brought back memories – of Harold Williams as he poured out beautiful tone with immaculate enunciation. Both of these wonderful singers commanded the broad phrasing that is a sine qua non in Elgar.

Alice CooteAlice Coote made a lovely sound, when one could hear her, but her singing was short-breathed by comparison – and she is a mezzo-soprano. Why, when Elder went to the lengths of providing a little chorus of Apostles (as Elgar did at the 1921 Three Choirs Festival), did he so flagrantly flout the composer’s requirement for a contralto in the vital role of Mary Magdalene? In the old days there were any number of such voice-types who could make themselves heard over an orchestra and chorus, and there are still a few today, one of whom could have been hired. I dare say Coote sounded fine to BBC Radio 3 – with the proviso that she lacked the requisite breath-control over long spans – but in situ she was often almost inaudible, a Wigmore Hall singer promoted into the Albert Hall.

Paul Groves, though he sang with excellent diction, was another soloist seemingly incapable of sustaining a decent phrase. How could he break the line “Thou hast trodden the winepress alone” after the word ‘trodden’? It was all too typical of his delivery, I fear; and Proms debutant David Kempster, while emitting a good bluff tone, was all push and puff, not my idea of St Peter. Clive Bayley made a good fist of the role of Judas. His voice and technique are serviceable rather than glamorous but he is a proven singing-actor and despite some Beckmesser-ish effects and some Heddle Nash-style sobs (not all singers of the past were paragons!), he brought the character vividly to life. He also produced a decent legato when it was most necessary.

A brickbat must be directed at the programme booklet. The Apostles is hardly an everyday piece, and any newcomer would have found the essay on the music very inadequate and uninformative. Nothing about how Elgar assembled his text or about where he found it (some passages came from the Apocrypha); and nothing about his compositional processes, or how this work fits in with The Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom.

However, this was in most essentials a noble reading of a noble masterpiece.

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