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Elgar Oratorios, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - a landmark in music making | reviews, news & interviews

Elgar Oratorios, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - a landmark in music making

Elgar Oratorios, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - a landmark in music making

Three of the composer's best in two weekends recall great triumphs of a great era

The biggest noise Elgar ever wrote … Sir Mark Elder conducts the Hallé and London Philharmonic Choirs in The ApostlesTom Stephens, the Hallé

Sir Mark Elder has a special affection for the music of Elgar. They share a birthday, on 2 June, and his time with the Hallé has included more than one celebration of the composer at this time of year.

Now that his departure as music director is in sight (at the end of next season), and there’s something of a retrospective quality about his remaining programmes, the last two weekends have witnessed a return to three of the greatest triumphs of his Hallé tenure, in the form of the three Elgar oratorios, The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom.

All three have been recorded by him with Hallé forces, but this was the first time the Manchester audience could hear them live, one after another and with the Biblical duology on consecutive days. By last night, Manchester had another notable treble to celebrate.

This feast of Elgar began with The Dream of Gerontius. Elder first it performed in Manchester in 2001, marking the end of a period of self-imposed austerity for the orchestra after a financial crisis; and he concluded the 150th Hallé season with it in 2008, making an award-winning recording. It’s embedded in Hallé history, too, as Sir John Barbirolli’s 1964 recording was reckoned one of the summits of his time with the orchestra.

Sir Mark Elder conducting the Halle in The_Dream_Of_Gerontius_June23_credit_Alex_Burns_the_halle So in some ways that first evening was a return to a happy land for Sir Mark (pictured) – and others on the platform. One of the soloists, Alice Coote, was reprising her 2008 role as the Angel, and the combined Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir were swelled by former members of the Youth Choir to create an even more formidable host of singers than before. It had all the hallmarks of the earlier interpretations: lovely transparency of orchestral tone (the Hallé's playing today is characterized at its best by sweet and clear dolce string tone and, when called for, imperious, heavyweight brass – perfect for Elgar’s soundworld), serenity and meditative stillness contrasted with rumbustious, energetic rhythms, uninhibited glorying in the variety of colours available (two harps plangently audible in the ethereal moments, booming organ tone in the awesome ones), and emotive energy at full throttle in every twist and turn of the journey.

The semi-chorus “Kyrie” near the beginning set the course for the choral singing: confident, full of glorious soprano and alto tone and, by the close of the work’s first part, even having to be dampened

a little in its enthusiasm. But that was in order to save something for “Praise to the holiest” when its time came, and then they brought an element of tender expressiveness to its central verses as well as an emotional progress to the final paragraph – and, again, a swelling last chord that seemed to last into eternity.

Gerontius was sung by Michael Spryres, a tenor whose intelligence and ability to vary his tone and power are enviable and made him a fascinating choice for the role. His “Sanctus fortis” took its brief from the “fortis” and “Firmly I believe …” at the outset, building to a fine climax and finally gentle in its prayer.

Alice Coote in The_Dream_Of_Gerontius_June23_credit_Alex_Burns_the_halleNeal Davies, as the Priest and Angel of the Agony, made himself heard through every texture by a combination of finely projected tone and exemplary enunciation; Alice Coote (picturedlikewise was able to dominate the fullest sound, but controlled and affectionate in her role as the guardian Angel – the opening of her “Softly and gently” farewell taking those words quite literally and redolent of paradise itself in the final pages.

The Apostles, which in many ways is the most ambitious and demanding of the three oratorios, and also the most extraordinary in concept, came on Saturday last. It’s by common consent one of the most operatic things Elgar ever did, being a dramatized version of moments from the four Gospels in the New Testament – as assembled by Elgar – and with other verses from the Bible liberally plundered to explore their implications. In other words, it's his Life of Christ, as well as of those who knew him. Jesus is a role in the drama, from his “manifesto” announcement in the Nazareth synagogue through to the ascension. The crucifixion isn’t related, except marginally and by implication, and yet its meaning is present, first by Leitmotiv and then almost throughout the second part: the work is a devotional oratorio as well as a dramatic piece, though a long way from Bach’s Passion settings in style and format (the narrations, although partly given to a tenor soloist, are also made by a female voice and the chorus).

One of Elgar’s most original ideas is to explore the fate of Judas (much more subtly than Andrew Lloyd Webber did) – first establishing him as a mean-spirited odd man out among the 12 disciples, but after the betrayal showing him experiencing a kind of hell on earth before killing himself, which itself serves to illuminate the suffering of Jesus for the sins of others – a reflection of the meaning, though not the detail, of the crucifixion.

The work is not frequently performed, probably because of the sheer expense of bringing together six principal soloists and a big choir and orchestra, and for his performances Sir Mark Elder adds the nine disciples who are not principals (other than Peter, John and Judas) as a male-voice group on their own – something with Elgar’s imprimatur on it – using voices from the opera department of the Royal Northern College of Music. He also has a present-day representation of the shofar (Jewish ram’s horn trumpet) added to the orchestra, which turns out to be a kind of giant cornetto, almost a small alphorn. Elgar wrote this instrumental part without quite knowing how it would be rendered, other than by something that could outshine a normal trumpet, and here it did.

The Apostles was performed and recorded by Sir Mark with the Hallé in May 2012, but this time we had the Hallé Choir joined by the London Philharmonic Choir, which made for a broad, rich sound – apt for the superb choral effects the piece abounds in, and especially its great final chorus which (as Sir Mark put it in a symposium organised by the Elgar Society in Manchester a few weeks ago) is “the biggest noise he ever wrote”.

Elder understands the work’s dimensions, its theatricality and its theology. He paces it in the continuous imagined scenes which constitute its structure, over and above the titled incidents within them, and brings it to a few monumental peaks, such as the first recognition of the divinity of Jesus as he stills the storm (narrated by Mary Magdalene, as it were from a vantage point on the shore), the commissioning of Peter to preach the Gospel, the fate of Judas, and the ascension.

He positioned his forces around and above the “action” centre-stage, presenting the woodwind and shofar  behind and alongside the chorus for the picture of dawn over Jerusalem: and he brought the vivid details of the orchestration to colourful life, representing the life of the temple (triangle, antique cymbals, etc), telling the story of Mary Magdalene’s former life – a helter-skelter celebration of fleshly delights – evoking the seascape of the Galilee storm and representing the chattering of the loquacious bystanders at Peter’s betrayal. His orchestra told of the vanities of the world, and evil gathering strength, prior to Judas’s tragedy, in which he became a kind of inverted, negative Gerontius, facing his doom.

Roderick Williams in The Apostles_Credit_Tom_Stephens_The_Halle The soloists shared this vision. Alice Coote took part again (as in the recordings), this time as Mary Magdalene and a Narrator. Her enunciation and appreciation of every nuance of her texts was revelatory, from the drama of the storm to the remorseful pleading of her anointing Jesus with her tears. Sophie Bevan (taking the place, at short notice, of Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, who was unwell) brought an enviable purity and devotional quality to the narrating Angel Gabriel and her characterization of the Blessed Virgin Mary; Roderick Williams (pictured) was a strong, serene and single-minded Jesus. David Stout’s account of Peter was a multi-dimensional one, one moment assured and confident, the next fearful (though still strong in voice). Ed Lyon’s John (and Narrator) had the best quality of English lyric tenor, a good guy among good guys. But Clive Bayley was a desperado of a baddie as Judas, talking as it were “aside” to the audience in theatrical style, and his big scene, in its crucial position alongside the unseen crucifixion, building the character’s warped psychology and reaching a real depth of tragedy as its personality implodes.

The chorus were indefatigable, full-throated in the sturdy march that greets the calling of the disciples, pious in their singing of temple praises, triumphant in the great apotheosis that ends of piece. And I shouldn’t omit to mention the effective use of the organ (Darius Battiwalla), to underline the action like the tread of the Grim Reaper as the drama built to its climax.

The Kingdom (performed yesterday) is a different thing. Elgar called it “less mystic” than The Apostles, and it’s more straightforward for the vocal forces, though equally impressive in its thunderous climaxes and the telling details and colourful garb of its orchestral score – and it’s full of symbolic musical motives, one in particular being a sweetly bucolic, yet also strangely Wagnerian tune with an ascending triplet sequence that becomes a real ear-worm as the work goes on.

The Kingdom was introduced to the Hallé audience by Elder in 2007 and repeated a little over two years later and recorded. It’s all based on the first four chapters of The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, so covers the first two or three months of the early church’s existence at the most, compared with the three years of Jesus’s ministry – perhaps we shouldn’t wonder that there are fewer dramatic stories to be told, the Day of Pentecost being the clear high spot. Sir Mark, in this work, is all for moving things along (he mentioned in that Elgar Society meeting that his recording of it is 20 minutes shorter in total than Sir Adrian Boult’s version), and with good reason.

The opening Prelude, however, is vintage Elgar, with resonant striding themes alternating with tenderness: Elder draws out the beauties of this style superbly and passionately. He loves the orchestral virtuosity inherent in the text as well, and there were times (the beginning of the Pentecost scene, for instance), when that was in the foreground to the exclusion of the solo narration.

The four soloists were Gemma Summerfield, Dame Sarah Connolly, Andrew Staples (Thomas Atkins being unwell) and Ashley Riches: each with a named role but contributing in other ways too. As the Blessed Virgin Mary, Gemma Summerfield brought a blend of purity and warmth, floating with noble piety on the orchestral texture in the description of the morning of Pentecost and making a lovely duet with leader Roberto Ruisi’s solo violin in “The sun goeth down”. Sarah Connolly was alert to the drama of the Pentecost story, but fully came into her own describing the healing at the Beautiful Gate. Ashley Riches had a big job to do as St Peter, including his speech to the crowd at Pentecost, in a role that’s demanding at the top of the range and in its phrasing, and sustained it well. And in Andrew Staples the Hallé made an excellent find: his tenor was an attractive, well tuned and noble one, the role sitting well on his voice.

The Hallé Choir this time were joined by their own offshoot, the Hallé Choir Associates, and the Ad Solem chorus from the University of Manchester, who together produced a resplendent sound, with a glorious finale to the Pentecost account and the same again at the outset of the final scene as the gathered church worships.

The work ends relatively quietly, but the ovation that followed it showed how much the Manchester audience had appreciated what that had gone before, one of those landmarks in music making that will be long remembered.

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