Elgar’s two synoptic New Testament oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom tend to sit in the shadow of his The Dream of Gerontius (text now with added saintliness), but they are both excellent works, and, arguably more packed full of Elgar’s melodic and harmonic development. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Choir, the BBC Symphony Chorus and a collection of first-rate soloists proved this point beyond doubt on Saturday with a consummate performance of The Apostles.
Sir Mark Elder, the advertised conductor, was indisposed, but his place was taken by Martyn Brabbins. Elgar’s fussy directions in the score leave a conductor with little leeway, but the trick is to understand from these the composer’s general intention and work with it; Brabbins, for whom this material is meat and drink, gets this completely, and under his direction the piece breathed Elgar’s musical soul. Everything was beautifully delineated under an intelligent but affable control: the characteristic triplet rhythms, the swell and ebb of the dynamics, the uneasy harmonic shifts and the expressive changes in speed were all present.
The orchestra played sublimely from the quiet-but-rich opening dynamic through to the last solid chord that decayed in a twinkling of harps. The woodwind in ‘By the Wayside’ was soufflé-light, the strings at the opening of ‘Golgotha’ delivered a chillingly quiet intensity, the quirky, distracted orchestral passages in ‘Fantasy’ illustrated the text without overpowering it, and the solid brass chorus at the opening of Part 2 gave a foretaste of the drama to come. It was also enjoyable to hear the shofar part played on a real ram’s-horn instrument rather than the often-substituted flugelhorn.
The soloists had been chosen with care for both tone and blend. Elgar’s music needs that ‘English’ sound that has power and romantic character without too much in the way of operatic histrionics, and all six delivered this perfectly. Elizabeth Watts’ Gabriel and Mary were clear yet with underlying velvet, Alice Coote as Mary Magdalene and the second narrator has a model Elgar mezzo voice – creamy with some heft in the chest voice, yet with a head-voice power to sing over the orchestra in ‘In the Tower of Magdala’. David Stout’s Peter had a commanding solidity to it (and how wonderful it would be to hear him reprise the role in The Kingdom, where Peter gets much more to sing), and Allan Clayton’s John/first narrator were delivered with that effortless English-lyric-tenor style. Roderick Williams is always a delight to listen to, and his Jesus displayed to the full the warm quality that has made his name. Brindley Sherratt is best known for his operatic roles, and his appearance on a concert stage is a treat; the role of Judas is practically written for him, and he did not disappoint, his sonorous basso profundo bringing out the complexities of the character, from evil menace to bitter self-pity.
The two choruses blended together seamlessly, and tackled the composer’s demands with polished skill. Those archetypal crescendo/diminuendo moments were synchronised to perfection (the massive early crescendo in the Prologue gave us a hint of things to come), and it was a joy to hear a solid tenor line for a change. The unison statements throughout (and there are a surprising number) were precise and co-ordinated (even the consonants of the chorally challenging word ‘righteousness’ lined up), and the lacy complexities of the interjections in ‘By the Wayside’ were absolutely on-point. The separate ‘Apostles chorus’, provided by students of the Royal College also made for some nicely judged choral contrasts, particularly in sections where they were singing with both soloists and full chorus.