ELGAR: The Apostles, op. 49.
Rebecca Evans (soprano); Alice Coote (mezzo); Paul Groves (tenor); Jacques Imbrailo (baritone); David Kempster (baritone); Brindley Sherratt (bass); Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder.
Hallé Records CDHLD 7534 TT
: 114:29 (2 CDs).

Zippy Elgar. Of Elgar's three mature oratorios -- The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles, and The Kingdom -- I love The Apostles most. Elgar lived with the idea since a schoolboy, which a teacher remarked that the apostles were poor men and, before the descent of the Holy Ghost, perhaps "no cleverer" than the boys themselves. The idea stuck with Elgar, who began to wonder about the apostles as individuals, thus revealing a naturally dramatic sensibility. However, one should note that Elgar's drama lives in the mind, rather than on stage -- one reason why his opera projects came to either little or nothing. In The Starlight Express, with glorious music and a ghastly libretto, Elgar came the closest he ever got to opera, and its theatrical insufficiencies make me thankful he didn't waste more of his composing time completing one. He may have had Strauss's penetration of character and orchestral command, but not the stage-canniness, especially the latter's ability to recognize a distinguished libretto. To be fair, however, Strauss had von Hofmannsthal; no British writer of the time could have supplied anything nearly as good.

Despite my admiration for the work, The Dream of Gerontius has always left me with the impression of a child's puppet-theater, rather than a drama of living individuals. The problem comes down, once again, to the text. John Henry Newman's poetry, unlike that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, looks above people rather than at them. However, real blood flows through at least some of the characters in Elgar's Apostles -- significantly, the two sinners, Mary Magdalene and Judas (Peter gets fuller treatment in The Kingdom). The oratorio covers the calling of the apostles through Jesus's crucifixion, ascension, and subsequent appearance to the disciples. The music stands among Elgar's most heart-felt, especially Judas's remorse over his betrayal of Jesus. The "heavenly" music doesn't sound especially celestial, but you can't accuse it of insincerity, either. Filled with poetry on just about every page, I think it one of Elgar's greatest works, along with the Enigma Variations, the Cello Concerto, and the Second Symphony, and maybe a few others.

Sir Adrian Boult led a wonderful studio recording for EMI during the stereo LP era (which I bought, so you now know I'm a geezer), and it has shown up on CD in various incarnations. You can still get it from Amazon. I imprinted on this recording, and I don't think any other has yet surpassed it, certainly not Mark Elder's. However, Elder has gone back to the original score, restored some cuts, and honored Elgar's orchestration, as far as instruments and disposition of choral forces go. For example, per Elgar, he actually found a shofar and a shofar player for Part I's "Morning Psalm." This isn't nothing. However, this is also a live recording, apparently with splices from rehearsals, and it shows. Not that the performance is sloppy, but it is careful, and the balances aren't always right. The sound seems shrouded in excess bass, which obscures Elgar's intricate counterpoint and subtleties like which of the various semi- and hemi-semi-choruses sing or whether a shofar or a trumpet or a trombone actually sounds at a particular time. Boult had the luxury of a studio environment (although no shofar). I also prefer Boult's soloists (including Sheila Armstrong, Helen Watts, Robert Tear, Benjamin Luxon, and John Carol Case). They resort less to plummy scoops than Elder's group. They get to the heart of the text more directly. Mushy diction in general plagues the Elder from both soloists and chorus. You absolutely need the libretto in front of you to make out the words, and even then they might fly by.

Above all, I complain about Elder's rather brisk treatment. Boult allows the music to breathe, but he also gets the high drama of Part II, especially Judas's self-lacerating, useless remorse. He yields nothing to Elder here. But Elgar is a composer who won't be driven faster than he wants to go. Indeed, a great Elgarian like Boult understands that often the music may change tempo many times within a few bars. Boult seems to let the music happen. Elder rides the score like a train conductor with a stopwatch and a schedule.

I would still say that Elder has a place on an Elgar fan's shelf, for his scholarship alone.

S.G.S. (September 2014)