Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Apostles, Op.49 [114.29]
Rebecca Evans (soprano); Alice Coote (mezzo); Paul Groves (tenor); Jacques Imbrailo, David Kempster (baritones); Brindley Sherratt (bass)
Hallé Youth Choir, Choir and Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 5 May 2012
HALLÉ HLD 7534 [65.08 + 49.21]
The first commercial recording of The Apostles was that made by Sir Adrian Boult for EMI in 1974. This was a ‘follow-up’ to his magnificent set of The Kingdom made five years before, when a stellar cast including Margaret Price and John Shirley-Quirk had successfully proved that there was life in the Elgar oratorios beyond Gerontius. Neither of these artists was available for The Apostles, and although the recording demonstrated that the score did not deserve the derision already being accorded to it during the composer’s lifetime, it did not achieve the overwhelming success of the earlier release. Since then recordings of The Apostles have continued to be thin on the ground: Richard Hickox did it for Chandos, there has been a Discovery issue deriving from a live performance in Canterbury Cathedral under Richard Cooke, and now this recording made in Manchester under Sir Mark Elder at a live performance - with patches from a rehearsal.
The Canterbury performance is one that one would be delighted to encounter live, but the cathedral acoustic seriously blurs the outlines of the score in a manner that cannot do full justice to Elgar’s intricate and unique scoring; nor are the solo singers on a par with their rivals. On the other hand Hickox, concerned to project the drama of the score, tends towards extremes of speed, sometimes slower than Elgar’s markings and sometimes with a tendency to push the music forward to an undesirable degree. Elder, with his plentiful operatic experience, recognises that to take certain passages slower is not to lose dramatic impetus and can indeed reinforce it. His superbly measured speed for the chorus at the heart of In Caesarea Philippi is a case in point. It should be noted that Boult’s pioneering set is currently only available as an EMI reissue as part of a boxed set.
The same cast and forces – mainly - as heard here under Elder brought their reading to the Proms this year, but this commercial release on the Hallé’s own label is certainly better. Although Elder’s reputation in Elgar is deservedly growing, he is not a traditional Elgarian. In a television documentary a few years back he made it clear that his knowledge of the composer’s music did not extend to the extraordinary but hardly unknown partsong Owls. In the Proms performance he allowed the end of the first movement of The Apostles, where Christ summons the disciples and utters his first words, to run away at an fantastically fast speed, for example. He did not make this mistake in this Manchester performance, where Christ’s words “Behold, I send you forth” are allowed to make their full effect.
In the Proms performance I was generally impressed with the solo singing, but had reservations about Paul Groves as the narrator and Saint John; his voice seemed strained and overly forceful in a way that did not blend with the other singers. There can be no such reservations here, where he phrases with plenty of feeling and none of the strain evident in the Albert Hall - perhaps the result of over-close BBC microphone placement. The other singers here are all the equal of Boult’s and Hickox’s soloists, or better. The soprano role of the Angel and the Virgin did not ideally suit Sheila Armstrong for Boult - she seems ill at ease and rather tremulous at times; Alison Hargan for Hickox is preferable. Although Rebecca Evans is perhaps a little too close for the ‘distant’ Angel specified by Elgar at her first words, her voice has plenty of body where required and more warmth. Her phrasing in her address to Mary Magdalene “Hearken, O daughter” would melt the stoniest heart. As the Magdalene Alice Coote has perhaps a little less contralto depth than Helen Watts (for Boult) or Alfreda Hodgson (for Hickox), but on the other hand she has plenty of character and rises superbly to the higher notes. Paul Groves in this performance sounds more forward than Robert Tear for Boult, but phrases with even greater delicacy; David Rendall for Hickox is altogether more uninflected. As Christ, John Carol Case for Boult and Stephen Roberts for Hickox are slightly more withdrawn, more other-worldly than Jacques Imbrailo here; but the latter also phrases with great beauty and the sense of humanity surely is closer to Elgar’s intention to portray the Biblical story realistically. Benjamin Luxon for Boult is rather freer in the top register than David Kempster here as Saint Peter, but there is little to choose between them; the young Bryn Terfel for Hickox is best of all. Elder scores most emphatically in his Judas. Clifford Grant, a superb Hagen for Goodall in his English-language Ring only a couple of years before, was beginning in the Boult recording to show severe signs of wear on his voice with loosening of vibrato and pitch which severely damaged his great scene of repentance. Here Brindley Sherratt shows no such vocal problems, and is even more expressive than Robert Lloyd for Hickox.
Boult’s recording was also seriously compromised by some rather unfocused choral singing; here the Manchester singers are even more superb than Hickox’s rather distantly recorded body - although as a result the chorus of ‘singers within the Temple’ is undesirably immediate. Elder has also gone back to Elgar’s own performance practice and introduced a semi-chorus of nine voices (plus the three soloists) to represent the twelve Apostles; this works well throughout, and gives more point to passages such as the opening of the Caesarea Philippi section. Elder’s conducting is virtually ideal throughout. He is not afraid to dare to obey the letter Elgar’s frequent instructions for Largamente and his often extremely slow metronome markings, most notably in the final Ascension section which gains implacable momentum from the steady pace he adopts. Boult by comparison can seem rather unfeelingly four-square at such points.
There are two quibbles, and the first is a very minor one. The ‘distant reeds’ at the beginning of section In the mountain, Night are carefully marked by Elgar with a largamente instruction over each of the semiquaver turns; the intention is clearly to give a feeling of timelessness to the phrasing. None of the recordings pay more than lip service to that direction. The second quibble concerns the point when the priests interrupt Judas’s phrase “I have betrayed the innocent …” with a loud cry of “Selah!” Here Elgar marks Judas’s line pianissimo and the priests are instructed to enter over the word “innocent” with an fff entry. The intention is absolutely clear: that the unfeeling chorus should ride roughshod over Judas’s protestations. Here they wait politely until Judas has finished his (unfinished) phrase before they interrupt him. It is not what Elgar wrote, and it sounds unconvincing; neither Boult nor Hickox miss the point here.
Otherwise I could detect no serious errors but there is, I suspect, a bad misprint in the vocal score at the Judas’s words “shall sit and rule upon his throne” (track 3, 2.50). The first syllable of the word “throne” is shown as a G falling to D but the accompanying bass line in the orchestra gives F-sharp falling to E. None of the recordings give us the passage as printed. In Boult’s performance Clifford Grant seems to alter the note to F-sharp falling to D - although his pitching is not ideally clear here - presumably with the conductor’s blessing. Here Brindley Sherratt gives us a sustained F-sharp (as does Robert Lloyd for Hickox) and this produces a momentary jolt as the bass line in the orchestra falls away beneath him. In Canterbury the rather light-voiced Robert Rice sings F-sharp falling to E, which parallels the orchestral line and is surely the correct reading.
One other textual point. Michael Kennedy in his booklet note states that Elder employs an authentic shofar for the ram’s horn fanfares instead of the usual trumpet substitute. In fact what we hear is so very well played that it might well be a trumpet, whereas Boult’s player sounds more authentically ethnic. This is hardly anything that needs to concern the listener overmuch.
This is quite simply the best performance ever of The Apostles on disc. Those who enjoyed Elder’s Proms performance and BBC broadcast will find their favourable impressions reinforced, and indeed bettered. Those who found the Boult recording good but not overwhelming will find this an answer to their prayers, with soloists just as good and a much better chorus. Those who like Hickox’s more impetuous approach may find some of Elder’s slower speeds disconcerting, but will I think find that they pay dramatic dividends in the long run. The quality of the recording enables us to hear every detail superbly.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Quite simply the best performance ever of The Apostles on disc.