sun 29/05/2022

The Apostles, LPO, Brabbins, RFH review - Elgar's melancholy New Testament snapshots | reviews, news & interviews

The Apostles, LPO, Brabbins, RFH review - Elgar's melancholy New Testament snapshots

The Apostles, LPO, Brabbins, RFH review - Elgar's melancholy New Testament snapshots

Perfection of movement and solo line-up in a problem oratorio

Kramskoi's 'Christ in the Wilderness', which Elgar took as an image of ideal loneliness while working on 'The Apostles'

The Apostles is a depressing work, mostly in a good way. Elgar's one good aspirational theme of mystic chordal progressions is easily outnumbered by a phantasmal parade of dying falls, hauntingly shaped and orchestrated.

After The Dream of Gerontius, this ostensibly more clear-cut oratorio has less sense of form; it's fragmentary or modern, according to taste. I doubt, even so, if a better argument could be made for it than that from last night's team and its keen guide, Martyn Brabbins – a more flexible shaper, let's be honest, than the admirable champion of the work he was replacing, Mark Elder.

How far this all is, though, from Elgar's avowed starting-point, a schoolmaster's remark about the poor, down-to-earth young men who became the Apostles. For all the claims that this is the composer's nearest approach to an opera, the characterisations are loose, and despite the citing of Judas's long monologue before he hangs himself as a dramatic highlight, it's too meandering to pull focus, admirable though Elgar's aim may have been to shine the spotlight on the betraying Apostle at the time of Christ's crucifixion.

Elizabeth WattsEven so, Brindley Sherratt gave it his best shot and was flanked by fine colleagues – to his right, David Stout as a vividly-projecting Peter, Allan Clayton clarion as ever as both John and one of the two Narrators; to his left nine young voices from the Royal College of Music as semi-chorus Apostles. Roderick Williams brought his natural openness of spirit to Christ's limited utterances.

The most moving music, if not – again – the sharpest of character-studies, belongs to soprano and mezzo. Elizabeth Watts (pictured left by Marco Borggreve), not quite as clear in diction as the rest – there were choral problems in this area, too – provided the biggest frisson with the BVM's acceptance of Mary Magdalene, one of Elgar's loveliest inspirations lit by ineffable clarinet solo (Benjamin Mellefont) in shared radiance. Alice Coote's glorious colours reminded us that she is the Elgar mezzo supreme. Both caught the pianissimo introspectiveness that is Elgar at his most personal, perfectly shared by LPO strings. There was hushed magic, too, in the darkness-to-dawn melancholy of the opening sequence, though the lone shofar frankly sounded a bit daft, dignified only by support from trombones.

You want so much of the poetry to linger for longer, but everything shifts quickly in the kaleidoscope and even the choruses which cap the two parts, attendant voices of the LPO and BBC Symphony in rich accord, unfurl a glory that swiftly fades. In this Elgar, the struggler who so wanted to believe but could never hold on to consoling visions for long is simply true to himself. Fustian only in parts, The Apostles is a fascinating sunset flare on the twilit road from Parsifal, and to be treasured for that.

The most moving music, if not the sharpest of character-studies, belongs to soprano and mezzo


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I liked David's erudite review, even though it might be said that it fell into the same trap that is ascribed to Elgar's oratorio! As an ordinary member of the audience I have to admit that I was blown away by Judas's monologue... what a wonderfully contrasting emotional journey the composer takes us on as Judas spirals into the depths of human despair, vacillating between false hope and self loathing. This descent twists and turns. The orchestral colours are marvellous. The choral interjections add menacingly to the sense of dissipation. To put it in straightforward language - Elgar hit me in the guts here and Brindley Sherrit did a cruel job of putting the boot in just where it hurt...... And, to my plain thinking mind, the proof was in the pudding. In the last 10 minutes of the piece Elgar draws together all the emotional (and musical) strands he's laid out before us into moments of introspection that are so deeply profound they touched me the core. As I looked at the people around me it was as plain as day how deeply the music as affecting them. (Well done Mr. Brabbins and all). When the final (Eb) chord died away, the audience sat utterly still and reflective for a good 30 or 40 seconds before breaking out into joyous heartfelt applause. I've never been present when an audience has been so silent and in turned..... to me this is the overarching and most important measure of this amazing work. Sometimes words aren't enough, silence is better!!

Happy to read of your experience, but not sure what trap you mean. I was an ordinary member of the audience too, in the sense of experiencing the work. You may well be right about the drawing together of the strands, though it still leaves me with a sense of unease.

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