At the Royal Festival Hall, Sir Edward Elgar's The Apostles, Martyn Brabbins conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Chorus, the BBC Symphony Chorus and a good array of soloists. The Apostles is hardly unknown : it's been done numerous times, so its place in the canon is beyond dispute. So why doesn't it get the respect it's due ? It occupies a very special place in our understanding of Elgar and his music, and of the times he lived in. The Apostles is part of a trilogy of oratorios examining the nature of Christianity as Jesus taught his followers. This context should be well known, too, since both The Apostles and The Kingdom have been done in recent years, establishing the context. Though Elgar used the grand gestures popular in Edwardian times, it is significant that his approach to Christian belief was much more a personal statement of faith, humble and humane rather than triumphalist. This might be the "real" Elgar, the "man behind the mask", Elgar the eternal outsider, despite his public acclaim. This makes a difference in reception and interpretation, which is why The Apostles deserves greater appreciation.
In The Apostles, Elgar shows how Jesus sets out his beliefs in simple, human terms. Judas has doubts about him but is confounded. In The Kingdom, the focus is more open ended. As the apostles go out on their mission, their story unfolds through a series of tableaux, impressive set pieces, but with less obvious human drama. The final, part would hase been titled The Last Judgement, when World and Time are destroyed and the faithful of all ages are raised from the dead, joining Jesus in Eternity. The sheer audacity of that vision may have stymied Elgar, much in the way that Sibelius's dreams for his eighth symphony inhibited realization. Fragments of The Last Judgement made their way into drafts for what was to be Elgar's final symphony, which we now know in Anthony Payne's performing version of what was to have been Elgar’s Third Symphony. Just as The Dream of Gerontius tells of one man's journey from physical life to the life everlasting. (read more here). The Apostles deals with the relation between God made man and mortal men. Hence the inherent contradiction that sometimes confuses The Apostles with overblown Edwardian public declarations of Christianity.
The Apostles unfolds in a series of seven tableaux, held together by male and female narrators. This structure allows a surprising degree of intimacy, concentrating on the interaction between Jesus and the people around him. Judas, Peter and John are gearing up for their mission to spread the gospels to the world. The chorus exults and the brass plays the glorious fanfare, which seems to stretch over vast distances. The huge kettledrums beat out a ceremonial march. Splendid! Yet it is the quiet voice of Jesus which rises above the tumult. "He who receiveth you, receiveth Me, and he that receiveth Me, receiveth Him who sent Me".When Jesus reveals the Beatitudes in By the Wayside, the baritone should sing with sincerity and conviction. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth". Meekness isn't weakness, though, for Jesus hints at persecutions to come.
The tension between grand forces and simplicity gives The Apostles much of its appeal. Elgar describes the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Davis whips the orchestra into a turmoil. "It is I, Be not afraid!" : the very words seems to shine like a lighthouse. Elgar's Jesus favours sinners, like Mary Magdalene. Peter the Doubter, and Judas Iscariot. Indeed, Elgar gives Judas more space than the others, suggesting his sympathy with those who question.This dialogue between Judas and Jesus is importnat because together they bring out a more unconventional element in the drama. Judas isn't a monster. He expresses genuine concern where the other Apostles obey blindly. When Judas recognizes his mistake, his anguish is so intense that the part can take on a strange, noble dignity. The long passage that starts "Our life is short and tedious" evokes compassion. This is a Judas with whom modern people can identify. We cannot judge, but remember the Beatitude "Blessed are the merciful!".
Elgar goes swiftly from Golgotha to the Ascencion, as if drawn forwards by the musical vision of Angels singing "Alleluia!". The string writing is pastoral, yet luminous, another insight, connecting Jesus's "rebirth" with his Nativity. The Mystic Chorus can ring with beautiful clarity. In The Apostles, Elgar writes for voice as if he were writing for different elements in an orchestra. He weaves together lines for the orchestra, choir and soloists to form an immaculate, shining wall of sound. "And lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world".
The Royal Festival Hall is not the most ideal setting for a piece like The Apostles, which, when heard in a cathedral or the Royal Albert Hall, breathes its full majesty. Cathedrals and the RAH have better organs, too, which make a difference. Still, if the message of The Apostles is human scale, concert hall acoustic isn't necessarily a factor. Mark Elder was originally scheduled to conduct. Since Elder's done the piece many times (and recorded it) his Apostles is a known quantity. Though Elder did it with the Hallé at the Proms and on the recording, and the lineup of soloists is slightly different, (Alice Coote and Brindley Sherratt reprising their roles), the difference would not have been extreme. Jacques Imbrailo was divine, but Roderick Williams is a great communicator, too. I did want to hear Elizabeth Watts, Allan Clayton and David Stout but they're good enough that they can be heard everywhere. Brabbins, on ther other hand, is one of the most original and distinctive conductors around, specializing in British and modern repertoire. His The Apostles should have been worth hearing ! Pity that I couldn't make it to the RFH, since I would have appreciated the experience. Still, conductors rarely do something only once, so here's hoping !