Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Apostles, composed in 1902–03, has never been popular: this new recording, taken from a live performance, is only the second I can remember encountering since Boult’s pioneering effort 30 years ago. It’s not hard to explain the neglect. From the audience’s perspective, it’s the kind of contemplative music that tests your Sitzfleisch. It’s a long piece (nearly two hours); and it seems longer still because it settles largely into moderate tempos (even the rare excursions into Allegro tend to be qualified as moderato or tranquillo) and because most of the drama is internalized (the trial of Jesus is off-stage, the storm at sea is brief, and the crucifixion itself is represented in a very brief orchestral passage). At the same time, it’s a
challenge to performers: it demands sizable forces (besides the traditional late-Romantic chorus and orchestra, there are six soloists and an off-stage choir); and for all the superficial placidity of the music, issues of balance and coordination are fearsome. In the final section following the Ascension, for instance, the conductor has to balance music of the heavens (off-stage choir and women’s choir, each spreading to four parts) against the substantially different music of the earth (men in up to five parts), with a vocal quartet providing yet a third level of commentary—all the while keeping track of a richly textured orchestral part. No wonder The Apostles is reserved for special occasions.
Yet, while its rarity is understandable, it’s hardly deserved. The oratorio’s perspective, while not quite heterodox, is at least intriguingly unconventional, with Mary Magdalene edging out the Virgin Mary, and with more consideration of Judas (a complicated character who fingers Jesus only to prove his divinity) than of Peter. And while there’s an occasional patch of note-spinning, most of the score glows magnificently (gorgeous melodies, heart-stopping modulations, and harmonic twists), building to climaxes as stirring as anything Elgar ever penned. This is profoundly spiritual music, but it’s never sentimental and (more important) it does not preach to the converted: Elgar does not rely on his listener’s prior faith to make his points. Even if you’re a steadfast nonbeliever, as I am, it’s difficult to listen to that glorious and ultimately consoling final section without tearing up—unless, of course, you’re so Elgar-phobic that nothing by Elgar ever moves you. Gerontius is, moment for moment, probably more consistent in inspiration—and it certainly has more variety of utterance. But at its best, The Apostles is even more transcendent.
Like any live performance, this one has its ups and downs. Everyone takes a while to get settled; there are moments where balance is askew (the second basses’ response of “What do we,” after rehearsal 148, is nearly inaudible); there are passages that don’t quite jell (surely, the dawn music in “The Calling of the Apostles” could have a greater impact). But the orchestra plays suavely (tender woodwinds, brass equally capable of hard brazen outbursts and of lush envelopment), and the chorus, especially in the grander passages, sings with utter conviction. The soloists don’t always blend well in their ensembles, but on their own they’re generally persuasive: Staples’s mellifluous moments of narration, Williams’s gentle admonitions as Jesus, and Rice’s subtle exploration of Judas’s inner turmoil are especially affecting. Add to this the electricity of a certified occasion—the decision to publish the recording apparently preceded the event itself—and you have a welcome addition to the catalog indeed. Does it replace the Boult and Hickox recordings that have come before? Perhaps not—but it stands up well against them. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz
Works on This Recording
The Apostles, Op. 49 by Sir Edward Elgar
Robert Rice (Baritone),
Andrew Staples (Tenor),
Roderick Williams (Baritone),
Colin Campbell (Baritone),
Louise Poole (Mezzo Soprano),
Anna Leese (Soprano)
Canterbury Cathedral Choir,
Canterbury Choral Society
Written: 1902-1903; England
Date of Recording: 01/22/2005
Venue: Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England
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