Three years after their disastrous first performance of The Dream of Gerontius
, the Birmingham Festival made handsome amends to Elgar by commissioning and premièring The Apostles
, the composer’s oratorio based on the Gospel story. Despite a rapturous reception from the critics, the work failed to establish itself in the same manner that Gerontius
achieved after its rehabilitation. Performances and recordings remain rare even to this day although the work has recovered some of the esteem that is its due as one of the major works of Elgar’s prime. Part of the reason, it seems to me, lies in the rather uneven nature of the composer’s inspiration and his handling of the network of Wagnerian leitmotifs
which interlace the action. The Second Part, dealing with the Passion and the Ascension, is an absolutely stunning masterpiece of sustained impulse; but sections of the First Part, in particular the fragmentary treatment of the story of Mary Magdalene and the pastoral setting of the Beatitudes, have a rather pastel quality which fails to rise in places to the texts Elgar selected. Similarly the Biblical recitatives given, Evangelist-like, to the tenor, allow the dramatic tension to sag; and Jesus seems to spend an unconscionably long time going up into the mountains to pray — he does it twice. Incidentally, the booklet notes with this release by Keith Elcombe state that Elgar’s words were taken entirely from the New Testament and the Apocrypha, but in fact there are also substantial citations from the Old Testament – the Psalms in particular.
Two years ago I reviewed
Sir Mark Elder’s live recording of The Apostles
issued on the Hallé’s own label, which I described as “quite simply the best performance ever of The Apostles
on disc.” This led to a private exchange of e-mails which led me back to listen again to the work, and I have to admit that this has left me with a rather more equivocal response to the Elder recording. Although his amendments to the score — based on Elgar’s own performing practice — are often improvements – his reduction of the individual apostles to a semi-chorus of twelve voices is particularly effective – the one glaring problem comes in a passage which I described in my original review as a “quibble”: it “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.” Now this is clearly not simply a mistake, since Elder made exactly the same alteration to the score in his Proms performance a couple of weeks later. Nonetheless it is a real howler, since it robs one of the central dramatic scenes of the oratorio of its impact, and I find that it grows increasingly annoying on repetition. None of the other recordings make this amendment.
When writing the review of the Elder recording I took the opportunity to make some comparisons with the three other readings available on disc. Of these that from a live performance at Canterbury Cathedral cannot compete with its rivals under the batons of Boult and Hickox; it suffers from the cathedral acoustic which blurs the orchestral and choral lines, and the solo singing is generally inferior to its rivals. This reissue of the Hickox set from Chandos gives me a welcome opportunity to revisit the score, and make further comparisons with the older and newer sets from Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Mark Elder. Those who wish may like to make comparisons with my review from 2012, but I will include some citations from this in the course of this further examination of the available recordings.
In the first place, all three of the remaining recordings under consideration do full justice to the score. Boult’s pioneering set may lack the coruscating intensity which he brought to his earlier recording of The Kingdom
, but he manages to unify the work even when its disparate structure threatens to bring it to a halt. Elder is the only conductor actually to accept Elgar's often surprisingly slow metronome marks at their face value. This pays real dividends in the passage describing the foundation of the Church in At Caesarea Philippi
even when at other times Elder is very quick indeed — as at the end of the first section describing the calling of the Apostles. Hickox, while avoiding Elder’s extremes, also aims to maximise the dramatic impact of the writing by emphasising the dynamic contrasts and giving full weight to the textures. Unfortunately this tends to draw attention to the bittiness of the Mary Magdelene scenes, although that is largely the composer’s fault as the scene shifts from place to place. Elgar would however have appreciated the honest engagement with the action; he was above all concerned that the characters should be seen as real people, and not as figures in an oratorio.
The recorded sound also serves to differentiate the three versions. Although Elder’s recording derives from live performances, it also contains patches from rehearsal sessions and gives us a straightforward concert rendition with the choir well in the picture. Boult brings the chorus even further forward — in the style of the 1970s — in the reverberant and much-missed acoustic of the Kingsway Hall, and his organ is the most rumblingly present of all. Hickox is set in an even more resonant acoustic, with the chorus placed somewhat further back but this enables the filigree detail in the orchestration to come through with added point; Boult, for example, by comparison rather underplays the percussion in the passages describing the thirty pieces of silver. The more distant placement of Hickox’s chorus brings real advantages in the scene of Judas’s lament where they sound properly “remote” as the score demands. However Hickox does miss out on two dramatic effects. His shofar
(Jewish ram’s horn), which Elgar clearly saw as a primitive sound, seems to be played on an ordinary trumpet, and both Boult and Elder sound more genuinely ‘ethnic’ here. Although Elgar does not specify this, the use by both Boult and Elder of a children’s chorus to sing the words of the transfigured Jesus during The Ascension
serves the better to differentiate the choral textures than Hickox can manage with female voices alone.
So far, the honours between the three sets seems to be more or less even, depending on what sort of performance the listener wants to experience. Which brings us down to the important matter of the roles allocated to the six soloists. Of these, oddly enough, the part of Jesus is almost the most peripheral, and the singer does not even enter until nearly the end of the first section of the score. All three of the exponents on disc are good. John Carol Case for Boult is firm, pure and lyrical. Stephen Roberts for Hickox is more urgent, with a quick vibrato adding a human element to the voice but I do question his delivery of the line “Go in peace” just before the chorus Turn ye to the threshold
. The score is admittedly ambiguous here, with a pause on the word “in” and an appoggiatura rising to the note above but it is quite clear that the beginning of the word “peace” should coincide with the resolution of the momentary and passing discord that this entails. Here Roberts anticipates that resolution, and although the jarring effect quickly passes it gives the unfortunate impression that he wished to push the pace faster than Hickox was prepared to go. None of the other recordings make this mistake. Best of all is Jacques Imbrailo for Elder, more human than Roberts but less fallible.
Of the two female roles, that of the Virgin Mary is curiously short; she has to wait for her moment in the spotlight until The sun goeth down
in the sequel The Kingdom
. The only substantial solo passage she has in The Apostles
is as the Angel Gabriel in the opening scene, where Elgar marks the opening passage to be “distant”. It is not clear what he could have meant by this in the context of a concert performance, but Sheila Armstrong for Boult is the only singer to attempt to convey what he might have imagined. Unfortunately her contributions later are marred by unsteadiness and a certain tremulousness of tone. Both Alison Hargan for Hickox and Rebecca Evans for Elder are more effective here.
The part of Mary Magdalene was – inevitably, given the circumstances of oratorio – assigned by Elgar to a contralto, but this does have the unfortunate side effect that the character can sound too matronly. Helen Watts (for Boult) and Alfreda Hodgson (for Hickox here) were the leading English contraltos of their respective generations, but neither can altogether avoid the impression of sounding respectable rather than anguished. In this respect I prefer Alice Coote (for Elder) who with her lighter-sounding mezzo voice sounds more like a sinner who might well have “withheld not my hand from any joy”.
Bryn Terfel as Peter for Hickox is quite simply streets ahead of his competition, although again this character really has to wait for The Kingdom
to be given any extensive solos. For Boult, Benjamin Luxon is much steadier than he became later in his career, but the sound is not ideally clear and there is a sense of strain on the higher notes. For Elder, David Kempster is fine but in the context of a live performance he simply cannot afford to make the subtle piano
points that Terfel can in the context of a studio recording. Terfel, unlike either of his rivals, manages to convey the sense of insecurity and uncertainty that will make his denial of Christ all too plausible.
Similarly Robert Lloyd as Judas is helped by the studio recording to bring subtleties of touch to his portrayal that elude Brindley Sherratt for Elder. Clifford Grant, for Boult, was a great singer in his day but by the time he came to record the role he was already showing signs of a disastrous decline. This phenomenon afflicted a number of singers who made their name in Wagnerian roles under Reginald Goodall, who once they were freed from his meticulous teaching regime found their careers curtailed by severe vocal problems – one thinks also of Alberto Remedios, Linda Esther Gray and even Rita Hunter, all of whom I recall having difficulties with live performances (of Otello, Kundry and Turandot) at Welsh National Opera only a couple of years later with other conductors. Grant is simply unacceptable as Judas, finding problems in maintaining pitch and rhythm as well as displaying unclear diction. Lloyd is again far and away the best here; like all the other singers, he corrects the clear misprint in the vocal score at Judas’s words “rule upon his throne”. I discuss this problematic matter at greater length in my earlier review of the Elder set.
So in general it is hard to solidly prefer one or another of the versions of The Apostles
to any other; and the reissue of Hickox’s recording as a two-for-the-price-of-one package removes any price differential, too. Boult’s recording, once available separately on a mid-price EMI reissue, now appears to be available only as part of that company’s bumper Elgar Edition
, but it surely must resurface singly in due course. However, unless Warner have a change of heart about their presentation, we cannot expect such a reissue to provide the complete text as both Hickox and Elder do.
There is one additional point. When it was originally issued on LP, Boult’s recording contained on the sixth side an illustrated lecture by the conductor outlining the main leitmotifs
which Elgar employed both in The Apostles
and The Kingdom.
This was valuable, not only for the purposes of the facilitating recognition by the listener, but also for demonstrating the very Wagnerian manner in which Elgar transformed and transmuted the motifs for the purposes of dramatic effect – such as the use of telescoped versions of various Christ themes at the moment of Judas’s suicide. The booklet with this issue does contain some notes by Keith Elcombe on the employment of the motifs, but without the provision of examples it remains perforce somewhat vague in tone. All Elgarians should make an effort to hear Boult’s lecture if they can track down a copy of it.
In the end all three of these performances serve thoroughly to vindicate a score that even in Elgar’s lifetime was being comprehensively ignored by audiences. Uneven the work may be, but the hair-raisingly incandescent climax of the Ascension
music at the end outdoes anything else even in Elgar’s work for sheer visceral impact.
Paul Corfield Godfrey