RECORD OF THE MONTH
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Apostles – oratorio, Op. 49 (1903) [114:29]
Rebecca Evans (soprano) - The Angel Gabriel/The Blessed Virgin Mary
Alice Coote (mezzo) - Mary Magdalene/Narrator 2
Paul Groves (tenor) - Narrator 1/John
Jacques Imbrailo (baritone) - Jesus
David Kempster (bass-baritone) - Peter
Brindley Sherratt (bass) - Judas
Hallé Choir; Hallé Youth Choir; Chorus of Apostles
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, 5 May 2012 and in rehearsal, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, England
Full English text included
HALLÉ CD HLD 7534 [65:08 + 49:21]
The 2011/12 season was a memorable one for the Hallé and its Music Director Sir Mark Elder who was celebrating his twelfth season with the Manchester based orchestra. What was for me a rather uninspiring Beethoven cycle was overshadowed by three unforgettable performances that will serve to increase the Hallé Orchestra’s burgeoning international reputation. In November 2011 the Bridgewater audience were treated to John Adams’s Harmonium for chorus and orchestra (1980/81) a setting of poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. Next, in collaboration with the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in April 2012 Sir Mark took the Hallé into the pit at the Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays for a spellbinding production of Bernstein’s feel-good musical Wonderful Town starring actress/singer Connie Fisher. Back home at the Bridgwater Hall on 5 May 2012 we were treated to this inspirational performance of Elgar’s The Apostles. Dedicated ‘To the Greater Glory of God’ The Apostles is a large-scale two part oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra written in the English choral tradition. Elgar selected his own texts from the Bible and the Apocrypha. Elgar himself introduced the oratorio at the Birmingham Triennial Festival in 1903.
I was present that Saturday May evening reporting on The Apostles for Seen and Heard International and this review is essentially based on that report. Together with a number of friends we had travelled down to witness a performance that will live long in the memory. Thankfully the Hallé’s performance under Sir Mark was recorded together with a rehearsal for patching purposes. As expected the performance was taken extremely seriously and far more hours than normally allocated for rehearsal were clocked up.
Prior to the start there was an uplifting feeling of keen anticipation in the packed hall. It’s a shame that the listener not present on the night cannot also share that sense of expectancy. Eschewing histrionics, one hardly noticed Sir Mark on the podium, just getting on with the job of directing this substantial work. This was a highly assured account all the more impressive given the task of bringing the massed forces together in a coherent way. I particularly admired the unerring control of the massive dynamic extremes with tempi that felt judicious. Potency and beautifully incisive playing demonstrated the orchestra’s ascendant prowess.
In radiant voice the choirs made a significant contribution to the evening’s success. This was matched in passionate commitment by the sextet of well chosen soloists. Standing out magnificently was Jacques Imbrailo as Jesus. He solidly projected his richly mellow and expressive timbre with immense purpose. A fine choice as the First Narrator/John was Paul Groves who was notable for his steady bright and clear diction. Brindley Sherratt’s Judas was well powered, polished and authoritative. Although acceptable bass-baritone David Kempster in the role of Peter at times became rather swamped by the choir and orchestra and would have benefited from a greater amplitude and clearer diction. Rebecca Evans as the Angel Gabriel/Virgin Mary was bright with a moderately warm sound and sang with affecting piety. Evans’ vibrato was noticeable but never intruded. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Mary Magdalene/Second Narrator has a substantial amount of text to sing. She was in glorious, reverential voice, well projected throughout.
Right from the orchestral Prelude to the scene The Calling of the Apostles the choir intoning the words from St. Luke’s Gospel To preach the acceptable year of the Lord sent a shiver down the spine. We were left in no doubt but that we had embarked on a visionary journey. The programme notes for the concert asserted that a genuine shofar player had been found. This caused much discussion amongst many audience members and subsequently on internet message boards. If people expected a traditional Hebrew Ram’s horn instrument that wasn’t what soloist Bob Farley played. From my seat it looked like a crossbreed of some sort of long straight brass trumpet that I would guess was around 6ft long becoming slightly angled just before the start of the bell. Nevertheless the playing, by the soloist positioned at the side of the hall, made a splendid impact both sonically and theatrically. The shofar can be heard to memorable effect at the start of CD 1 track 3.
At the beginning of Part 2 the solemn orchestral Introduction to the scene of The Betrayal of Christ was remarkable, with the doom-laden brass being lightened by the strings and winds then darkening again with all the drama of a Puccini opera. Depicting the crucifixion, the disturbing Golgotha section featured weighty orchestral textures especially the shadowy-toned brass and percussion. The electrifying final section The Ascension of Christ to heaven in his resurrected body required all the forces uniting in a colossal Alleluia. This was one of the most moving things I’ve experienced in classical music.
Released on the Hallé’s own label I found the sound quality of the Hallé/Elder disc highly satisfying. To the infuriation of many audience members an errant clapper virtually instantaneously at the end of both halves ruined the special moments of contemplation. Thankfully I can report that the patching session has successfully removed the unwanted racket. Michael Kennedy’s booklet notes are as authoritative as I would expect from this Elgar scholar. It’s good to see that a full libretto is included in the booklet. Some incorrect numbering against the part two text is the only glitch I found with this issue.
The rival recordings of The Apostles include the digitally re-mastered analogue 1973/74 account from the Kingsway Hall, London under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir on EMI. Then there’s the 1990 digital recording from St. Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Richard Hickox on Chandos. Both are very fine performances. Of the two I favour the Boult/EMI for its splendid singing and sense of reverential awe. On the down-side Boult’s singers may sound dated to some listeners and the LPO’s distinctive bottom-heavy sound can be off-putting. On balance the recording of The Apostles that I will reach out for the most will be this new Hallé release. It’s performed beautifully throughout and achieves an otherwise elusive spirituality. Everyone is on quite spectacular form. If proof were needed of the importance of The Apostles then this release is the evidence.
Performed beautifully. Everyone is on quite spectacular form.