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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Elgar 150th Anniversary Weekend: The Apostles Op. 49 Soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; Members of the City of Birmingham Choir; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Symphony Hall, Birmingham 2.6 2007 (JQ)


Mary: Claire Rutter (soprano
Mary Magdalene: Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano)
St. John
: John Daszak (tenor)
Jesus: Stephen Gadd (baritone)
Judas: James Rutherford (baritone)
St. Peter: Clive Bayley (bass);

Although Worcester, as Elgar's birthplace, and, indeed, the other two Three Choirs Festival cities, Gloucester and Hereford, can justly claim a special affinity with Elgar and his music the city of Birmingham was another place with which this great composer had strong associations. The university made him their inaugural Professor of Music and all three of his great oratorios were premièred at the city’s Triennial Festivals. The Dream of Gerontius, commissioned by the Festival, was given a near-disastrous first performance in Birmingham Town Hall in 1900. The Apostles and The Kingdom, likewise Festival commissions, were unveiled in the same hall with much greater success in 1903 and 1906 respectively.

During his tenure as Music Director of the CBSO Sakari Oramo has mounted performances of all three oratorios in their respective centenary years. Now, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth, he brought all three interpretations together, performing the works on consecutive days in Symphony Hall. I was unable to attend Gerontius on 1 June but the actual anniversary of the composer’s birth brought Apostles and I joined a large, if not sell-out, audience to hear this substantial work.

Apostles is the longest of Elgar’s oratorios – this performance took approximately 112 minutes, excluding the interval - and, in some ways, it’s also the most ambitious. As Michael Foster commented in his excellent programme note, Apostles, “represents a significant advance from The Dream of Gerontius and was a new type of work that imaginatively blended the English oratorio tradition with Wagnerism into an almost coherent, unified whole with its continuous weaving of soloists, chorus and orchestra.”

The libretto, fashioned by Elgar himself from a variety of sources, including the Gospels, the Psalms and the Apocrypha, deals with several episodes in the life of Christ. These include the teaching of The Beatitudes; the calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee; Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion – though the latter is only illustrated by a short orchestral passage; the remorse and suicide of Judas Iscariot; the reappearance of Christ after his resurrection; and, finally, his ascension into Heaven. This scheme means that there are more “events” than in the companion oratorio, Kingdom. However, the design of the work, which effectively consists of a series of tableaux, means that a sure hand is needed on the tiller if the performance is not to appear unwieldy or loosely knit.

The forces required are fairly extravagant, especially in terms of soloists. No fewer than six first rate solo singers are needed. In addition a large chorus is required and Elgar orchestrated the work lavishly and colourfully. The packed platform of Symphony Hall made a splendid sight and I was especially pleased to note that a pair of harps was employed, even though the second harp is optional. In this performance from the very first chords of the Prelude it was evident that the CBSO was in superb fettle and I can’t recall hearing a finer live account of the orchestral score. The huge climax that illustrates Dawn, at cue 35 in Part One, was absolutely overpowering in majesty and intensity – as it should be – but as well as such Big Moments there were also countless discreet and subtle orchestral details to admire as the evening wore on. Just prior to the Dawn climax Oramo achieved something of a coup by dispatching the oboe section, including cor anglais, to the wings, to make their crucial contributions to the scene of The Calling from a distance. This distancing added to the atmosphere tremendously and it was typical of the thought and care which had evidently gone into the very thorough preparation for this performance.

The choir impressed me greatly. They were virile and exultant in the early chorus, ‘The Lord hath chosen them’ and the chorus, ‘Turn you to the stronghold’ was also well sung.  The men’s contributions to the scene of Christ’s betrayal were delivered with punch and, after Peter’s denial of Christ, the ladies sang the lovely passage, ‘And the Lord turned…’ quite beautifully, capturing the pathos of the moment. More than anything else, however, the chorus really comes into its own in the closing pages of the work when Elgar depicts the Ascension with a vast multi-layered ensemble. The choir rose to this challenge fervently.

Oramo had a good team of soloists, though I thought that some were better than others. As Mary, Claire Rutter made some lovely sounds. She was touching at ’Hearken, O daughter’ in the scene ‘In Capernaum’ in Part One and earlier she took the part of The Angel very well. It seemed to me that she could have made more eye contact with the audience: early on it appeared that she was too fettered to the copy though this aspect improved as the performance wore on.

The role of St Peter is nowhere near as fully developed by Elgar as is the case in Kingdom. However, even allowing for this I thought that Clive Bayley was rather one-dimensional in his portrayal. Peter as a rough and ready fisherman – for that is what he was – came across but I think there’s more subtlety in the role than Bayley brought out. Too often it seemed to me that he was working harder than perhaps he needed to do to project his voice and this meant that St Peter came across as rather more forceful than I suspect Elgar intended.

St John, tenor John Daszak was frequently cast as the narrator. He sang clearly and with strong, ringing tone though there were just a couple of occasions when he sounded to spread top notes a bit. His is not a particularly sweet voice but he sang very well and offered a convincing portrayal of St John.

I can’t recall hearing Stephen Gadd previously but he impressed in the role of Jesus. He produced his voice evenly and clearly. Every word was distinct – in fact all the soloists did well in this regard – and he invested the character of Jesus with dignity while happily avoiding any suggestion of sanctimoniousness. He brought vocal and physical presence to the scene ‘In Caesarea Philippi’ in Part One and, earlier, he enunciated The Beatitudes with just the right amount of dignity and directness. His voice fell pleasingly on the ear, being essentially light in timbre but with no shortage of weight. Above all, he brought authority to the role and I enjoyed his singing.

But it is on the two more fallible characters, Mary Magdalene and Judas that Elgar focuses most strongly. Perhaps this should not surprise us given the composer’s tendency to introspection and self-doubt. Furthermore, his Catholic faith was losing in strength as the years went by. In Gerontius he had been drawn to the fact that the eponymous “hero” is, essentially a sinner and in Apostles also he reserved some of his strongest and most convincing music for what we might perhaps term the two least reputable characters. Jane Irwin was extremely convincing as the penitent Mary Magdalene in the ‘
Sea of Galilee’ episode in Part One. She sang with a lovely rich tone and inflected the music very well. Above all, she really communicated with the audience and she employed a wider dynamic range than any of her colleagues. In the subsequent scene ‘In Capernaum’, when her sins are forgiven, both she and Claire Rutter excelled, producing some lovely and touching singing. Later in the work Miss Irwin had several important, if fairly short, passages of recitative and in each of these she was, once again, vividly communicative.

But for me the outstanding performance was given by James Rutherford as Judas. To him fell the greatest solo of the evening, the long monologue of repentance in Part Two. Rutherford was quite splendid throughout this extended passage, which places huge vocal, emotional and histrionic demands on the singer. He conveyed superbly the wide range of emotions that Elgar wrote into the music, giving a performance that was human and credible. His voice was just right for the part, with plenty of amplitude, a firm and even production throughout the whole compass of the voice and clear diction. Rightly, both he and Oramo presented this section as dramatically as if it were opera and at its end I’m sure I detected a discreet nod of approval from Oramo towards his superb soloist, who had brought the music to life.

Presiding over these huge forces and welding the whole score together, Sakari Oramo scored something of a personal triumph. It was evident that he knew the complex score intimately – he gave every single soloist’s entry discreetly, for example – and he balanced the more complex ensembles with an expert touch. The score abounds in pitfalls for the unwary conductor, containing as it does a plethora of changes of speed and mood. Oramo negotiated all these potential difficulties with ease and it seemed to me that he observed faithfully the multitude of markings and directions that Elgar put into the score. Although he did not underplay the reflective sections of the work his was essentially a dramatic, even urgent, traversal of the score. Just once or twice I felt that his chosen tempi were a touch too brisk. In the Prelude, for instance, at cue 7, when the sopranos have their great melody at “for as the earth”, the marking is Più mosso but I felt that Oramo’s speed here robbed the music of its essential nobility. More seriously, the chorus, “Turn you to the stronghold”, with which Part One closes was taken at what I felt was an uncomfortably brisk speed. If one listens to Boult’s landmark recording of the work the speed that he adopts is, by comparison, beautifully judged and captures to perfection the prayerful nature of the music. Oramo, I felt, was a touch too impetuous here and in his generally commendable wish to keep the music moving he missed a trick at this point.

However, such reservations are very minor in the context of a lovingly and intelligently shaped account of the work. Oramo’s reading had the stamp of conviction all over it. He clearly loves the work and he led a performance of great commitment and dedication, which thoroughly deserved the enthusiastic reception from the audience when it was over.

Having thus celebrated the actual anniversary of Elgar’s birth in great style Sakari Oramo and the same forces, apart from one or two changes in the soloists’ line-up, will bring Apostles to the Henry Wood Proms on 18 August. I’m looking forward greatly to another chance to hear them perform this noble work.


John Quinn


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