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
Hallé Records CDHLD 7534 TT: 114:29 (2 CDs).
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
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
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.
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
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
I would still say that Elder has a place on an Elgar fan's shelf, for his
S.G.S. (September 2014)