RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Sir Edward ELGAR The Apostles, Op. 49 [114:29]
Rebecca Evans (soprano) – The Angel Gabriel, The Blessed Virgin Mary
Alice Coote (mezzo) – Mary Magdalene, Narrator 2
Paul Groves (tenor) – Narrator, John
Jacques Imbrailo (baritone) – Jesus
David Kempster (baritone) – Peter
Brindley Sherratt (bass) – Judas
Chorus of Apostles: Sean Boyes (tenor); Thomas Kelly (tenor); Timothy Langston (tenor); Thomas Morss (tenor); Adam Player (tenor); Stefan Berkiata (bass); Matthew Kellett (bass); Graham McCusker (bass); Daniel Shelvey(bass)
Hallé Choir; Hallé Youth Choir; Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live 5 May 2012 and in rehearsal, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
English text included
HALLÉ CD HLD 7534 [65:08 + 49:21]
Following on from his magnificent recording of The Dream of Gerontius (review) Sir Mark Elder gave us an equally splendid live account of The Kingdom in 2010 (review). I hoped that the companion oratorio, The Apostles would follow and now here it is. The recording has been issued very quickly after the concert performance from which it’s taken (review) and although it seems a bit of editing was required, splicing in passages from the rehearsal, I can’t say I was aware of any obvious joins.
Commissioned for the 1903 Birmingham Festival, The Apostles was intended by Elgar as part of a much more ambitious scheme which would have stretched to three full-length oratorios had it been completed. However, he only completed the second part, The Kingdom – also for Birmingham, in 1906 – and thereafter, for a variety of reasons, he lost interest – or heart – and did no more than tinker with outline ideas for Part III. The story of the ‘Apostles Trilogy’ is comprehensively related in Michael Foster’s indispensable book, Plotting Gigantic Worx. The Story of Elgar’s Apostles Trilogy (1995, 2003).
As Mr Foster observes, well before Elgar’s death interest had cooled in both The Apostles and The Kingdom although he conducted both pieces on a number of occasions at Three Choirs Festivals. The Kingdom was not recorded until 1968 when Sir Adrian Boult chose it for a recording to mark his 80th birthday. The Apostles had to wait even longer; Sir Adrian was able to record it in 1973. Since then both oratorios have also been recorded by Richard Hickox and both his and Sir Adrian’s accounts of The Apostles remain in the catalogue. The Hickox recording is available separately (CHAN 8875/6) but currently you can only get the Boult recording within boxed sets from EMI, I think. There were also recordings of both works by Leonard Slatkin some time ago but I have never heard them and as far as I know neither is currently available. One other recording of The Apostles exists in the shape of a performance, possibly live, by the Canterbury Choral Society conducted by Richard Cooke (Quartz QTZ2017) though that has never come my way.
One thing which may have militated against The Apostles, besides its length, is the size of the forces required. Elgar’s orchestral scoring is lavish – one of the largest orchestras for which he ever wrote – and the piece also requires no less than six soloists. In this performance Sir Mark Elder has gone even further, using nine male singers to form a Chorus of Apostles. In his excellent booklet note Michael Kennedy explains that Elder has gone back to an annotated proof copy of the vocal score at the Elgar Birthplace Museum and has identified some 30 passages in the work, annotated in Elgar’s own hand, where the three named Apostle soloists - Peter, John and Judas - are supplemented by a further 9 male singers (here 5 tenors and 4 basses) who form the Chorus of Apostles. This group of singers joins in with the three principals at passages such as ‘We are the servants of the Lord’ (4 bars after Cue 43). At other points – ‘Some say John the Baptist…‘ is one - they sing short passages that are usually sung by all the men of the chorus. Michael Kennedy suggests that “this performance is probably the first since Elgar conducted The Apostles in Hereford on 7 September 1921, at the Three Choirs Festival, to incorporate Elgar’s intentions at several points in the oratorio.” I’m bound to say that I’ve never heard this way of doing things employed in any performance that I’ve heard or sung in over the years. Does it make a difference? Well, actually, I think it does and it makes quite a good deal of sense – both dramatically and scripturally – that all the Apostles utter the words in question. The nine singers are drawn from the Royal Northern College of Music and from Manchester University and they acquit themselves very well.
It’s been a stimulating process not only listening to this very fine new recording but also comparing it with the Boult and Hickox recordings. Both of those earlier recordings have been out for quite some time so we don’t appear to have carried a detailed review of either on MusicWeb International; consequently, a little more by way of comparative comment may be helpful on this occasion. Let’s start by considering the soloists.
The soprano doubles as The Angel Gabriel and as The Blessed Virgin Mary. We hear her in the former guise, near the start, in the section called ‘In the Mountain – Night’. Here the benchmark performance is that by Sheila Armstrong for Boult. In her very first entry she observes the marking pp and the direction ‘distant’ better than anyone. In fact her ethereal account of this Angel’s solo is wonderful. Later in the work she’s deeply affecting as The Blessed Virgin in the solo ‘Hearken, O Daughter’ during the Cesarea Philippi scene. The crystal purity of Miss Armstrong’s voice and her radiant tone give immense pleasure here and throughout her performance. Above all, there’s a marvellous simplicity of utterance to her performance – art concealing art. Rebecca Evans sings very well for Elder and comes close to matching Sheila Armstrong at times but is not, in the last analysis, quite as magical. I find Alison Hargan on the Hickox recording a little too ‘present’, though she sings well enough. Partly this may be due to the immediacy of the Chandos recording but I think it’s also a matter of style and of timbre.
The other female soloist has some passages of narration but her prime solo passages come as Mary Magdalene in the third scene of Part I, ‘By the Sea of Galilee’. Alice Coote was highly successful as The Angel in Elder’s Gerontius recording and she gives another very fine performance here. The Magdalene role is far from easy to put across, both in technical and interpretative terms. I found her very convincing as the desperate, penitent sinner (CD 1, track 7 from 3:50); she makes good sense of the music and of the text. I’m sure no one will be disappointed by her contribution to this performance; I certainly wasn’t. She’s a mezzo, however, whereas both Alfreda Hodgson (Hickox) and Helen Watts (Boult) were contraltos. I think that perhaps the extra richness and depth of range in their voices give them a bit of an advantage. Helen Watts is very good but, for my money, Alfreda Hodgson is outstanding and she really engages the listener’s sympathy for Mary Magdalene.
Like Alice Coote, Paul Groves was a marvellous contributor to Elder’s Gerontius set. Here his role is less prominent, confined mainly to passages of narration and to ensemble work. He’s excellent throughout and I admire the lightness of touch and natural flow that he brings to his narrations. His voice is clear as a bell throughout and though I mentioned his vocal lightness, which he judges expertly, there are several passages where a more heroic timbre is needed and here we’re reminded of his Gerontius credentials. I’d rather forgotten how good Robert Tear is for Boult. Later in his career I often felt his voice had an unwelcome ‘bleat’ to it but that’s certainly not the case in Apostles. He sings with sensitivity, clarity and intelligence. I’m a little less enamoured of David Rendall (Hickox). He has a fine voice and a ringing timbre but I think his approach is a bit too close to being operatic at times.
The role of Peter is central in Kingdom but much less to the fore in Apostles; indeed, there isn’t a single extended solo for Peter in the work. David Kempster, who I don’t recall hearing before, does a very good job for Elder but Benjamin Luxon (Boult) and Bryn Terfel (Hickox) also impress. Terfel recorded this part relatively early in his career before he became prone to the exaggeration both of words and music that I find so distracting - and disappointing – in some of his later work. In Apostles his big, then-youthful voice is just right for the impetuous but sincere and committed Peter. However, as I say, all three exponents of this role on disc are wholly successful.
All of which leaves us with the two key solo roles in Apostles. The part of Jesus is not easy to bring off for the singer must avoid the trap of sounding preachy, especially in the ‘By the Wayside’ scene, where Jesus sings the Beatitudes. I like Jacques Imbrailo’s assumption of the role very much. Throughout the work his singing consistently falls pleasingly upon the ear – though one or two of his vowel sounds struck me as slightly odd. In The Beatitudes section he has the most natural delivery of all three, helped by Elder’s excellent pacing – and there’s no question of preaching. Indeed, Imbrailo is the most successful at presenting a portrayal of Christ as a relatively young man. I referred earlier to Sheila Armstrong’s essential simplicity in her role and I’m inclined to think Imbrailo achieves something similar. By comparison John Carol Case (Boult) sings well in purely vocal terms. However, I’m afraid that, to my ears, he comes across as much too formal and he also sounds a bit elderly – Jesus was a man in his early thirties, let’s not forget. I’m unconvinced. Stephen Roberts (Hickox) is better. It sounds as if he was recorded at a slight distance from the other soloists and with more resonance around his voice. Judging by a live performance I once saw him conduct, Hickox may have preferred this physical separation. Whether this approach is correct is not for discussion here but one registers the slight distancing when listening to the recording. Roberts sings well though I thought his top Fs sounded a touch effortful. I think Jacques Imbrailo is easily the best of the three.
Elgar’s treatment of Judas is unusual. In his comprehensive and unsurpassable notes that accompanied the original CD issue of the Boult recording Michael Kennedy explains that “Elgar’s view of Judas was adapted from Archbishop Whately of Dublin’s Lectures on the Characters of Our Lord’s Apostles, in which Judas is depicted as a zealot who over-reached himself in the certainty that Jesus would deliver himself from his captors by a miracle”. So, Mr Kennedy points out, Judas and the other “flawed” character, Mary Magdalene, receive sympathetic treatment at Elgar’s hands. The long solo of despairing repentance that Judas sings in Part II as the climax to ‘The Betrayal’ is the big set piece of the work. It’s difficult music and it’s very hard to put across. Brindley Sherratt gives a magnificent account of this extended passage, setting the seal on a fine contribution to the whole performance. He conveys better than any other singer that I can recall hearing the black despair, frustration and self-loathing experienced by Judas and he does this without exaggeration. He takes some risks, not least over dynamics at times, but the risks come off and this is a gripping portrayal. Robert Lloyd (Hickox) is also excellent. His is a studio performance and he isn’t as daring as Sherratt. In the last analysis Lloyd perhaps has a slight edge technically but Sherratt’s is the more dramatic portrayal. Clifford Grant (Boult) is miscast, I fear. His cavernous voice is unwieldy and not every note is hit truly. To be honest this sounds a bit like Fafner in the Holy Land and it’s never been to my taste. When Mark Elder performed The Apostles at the 2012 Proms he used the same team of soloists except that Clive Bayley sang Judas - I strongly preferred Brindley Sherratt’s performance to Bayley’s.
Elder’s Hallé choirs sing splendidly. They’re most attentive to Elgar’s many instructions regarding dynamics, the words are clear and the choral tone is always well focused. At the big moments there’s all the necessary amplitude from the chorus but what’s especially impressive is their flexibility and the many instances of really good soft singing. The choirs on the Hickox and Boult recordings also do well. However, Elder and Boult steal a march on Hickox in one crucial area. The final scene, ‘The Ascension’, incorporates a very important part for a semi chorus. I’m as sure as I can be that the Hallé Youth Choir form Elder’s semi chorus – there’s certainly a refreshing youthful timbre to the singing – and I know Boult used a youth choir, the Choir of Downe House School. Hickox draws his semi-chorus from the London Symphony Chorus. They sing well but there’s no differentiation of timbre; the young singers are capable of bringing a fresh, ethereal quality to the music, which makes such a difference.
The Hallé plays magnificently. Elder has developed this orchestra into a top-rank ensemble and currently it is as good as any I know when it comes to Elgar. The LSO and the LPO play very well indeed for Hickox and Boult respectively but the Hallé need fear no comparison. There’s a sheen to their sound and the ensemble is wonderfully flexible. In the loud passages there’s great power, though with no suggestion of forcing the tone, but what really grabbed my attention time after time was the sensitivity that they bring to quiet passages. Elgar was a glorious orchestrator who was at the height of his powers in the period that saw the composition of The Apostles. Elder and his splendid orchestra bring out all the colour, richness and inventiveness in this score.
At the end of the day the triumph is Mark Elder’s. He’s a marvellous Elgar conductor, as he’s already proved many times. The score abounds with minute tempo modifications and observance of these is essential if the vital ebb and flow in an Elgar score is to be captured. Elder is masterly at this. Nothing escapes his attention but, more than that, he makes these tempo modifications, many of which are tricky and last only a bar or so, seem absolutely natural. However, the success of the performance is not just a matter of minutiae. Elder has a wonderful feel for the sweep of the work and his extensive operatic experience is surely crucial in putting the score across. Much of Apostles is essentially reflective but dramatic thrust is vital also and Elder is convincing throughout and in every respect. Both Boult and Hickox offer insightful interpretations but neither trump Elder. He paces the score superbly. There are several places where he is swifter than either of his rivals – overall, Hickox has a rather too much of a tendency to expansive speeds, I feel. Perhaps the most obvious example is the noble chorus ‘Turn you to the stronghold’ with which Part I ends. In his biography of Boult Michael Kennedy quotes a letter that the conductor wrote to him at the time of the sessions for his recording in which he says that he felt the printed metronome mark (crotchet = 88) is too fast at the start. However, he went on to say that he was “afraid” he had made the chorus sound like a prayer. Boult and Hickox are both appreciably slower than the metronome mark and the chorus sounds solemn. Elder is almost spot-on and, at his speed, the chorus flows beautifully and has the air of quiet confidence and reassurance that Elgar surely intended. I felt that Elder’s tempo selection was convincing throughout the oratorio.
The new recording was made under performance conditions and engineer Steve Portnoi and his team have achieved excellent results. Their recording offers a satisfying concert hall perspective and balance; there’s just enough distance and ambience but lots of detail emerges without any suggestion of performers being put under the microscope. The soloists are expertly balanced. The Chandos recording for Hickox is more refulgent but perhaps a little too up-front. It’s a tribute to the combined skills of that great EMI team, Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker, that Boult’s Kingsway Hall recording still sounds so well almost 40 years after it was made. However, it doesn’t quite deliver the same experience as the two more recent recordings.
I would never want to be without Sir Adrian’s wise and deeply satisfying reading of this wonderful score. The Hickox set also has much to commend it. However, anyone who heard Elder’s memorable performance of The Apostles at the Proms on 10 August will know that he has the full measure of this work. His recording must now be the clear first choice.
I suspect that the Hallé’s Elgar Edition on CD must now be close to completion. One must admit that works such as King Olaf and Caractacus are unlikely to be commercially viable and virtually all the great masterpieces have now been recorded by Elder and his team. I still live in hope that Sir Mark will give us his interpretation of Anthony Payne’s reconstructive work on the Third Symphony. However, even more than that I hope he will record The Spirit of England. The relative neglect of this wonderful, eloquent work is a crying shame. With the centenary of the outbreak of World War I almost upon us that would be an appropriate time for a Hallé recording. In the meantime this superb Apostles is a mandatory purchase for all Elgar enthusiasts
The clear first choice. This superb Apostles is a mandatory purchase for all Elgar enthusiasts.