A Triumphant and Moving Account of The Apostles at the Three Choirs

August 2, 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (9) Elgar, Sarah Fox (soprano) – The Angel & Mary; Claudia Huckle (contralto) – Mary Magdalene; John Mark Ainsley (tenor) – St John; Neal Davies (bass) – St Peter; Marcus Farnsworth (bass) – Jesus; Brindley Sherratt (bass) – Judas; Girl Choristers of  Worcester Cathedral; Three Choirs Festival Youth  Choir; Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra; Adrian Partington (conductor), Worcester Cathedral, 1.8.2014 (JQ)

Elgar – The Apostles, Op.49 (1903)

 

In 2010 in Gloucester Cathedral Adrian Partington opened his first Three Choirs Festival as Artistic Director with a memorable performance of The Kingdom (review). I hoped that he would follow this up in 2013 with The Apostles but other programming needs took priority, I presume, and we had to wait an extra year, until this evening, to hear his interpretation of The Apostles. It was well worth the wait.

There were several features that testified to the considerable care that had been taken in the preparation of this performance. In the ‘Dawn’ episode of Part I Elgar included a part for a shofar, an ancient, traditional ram’s horn instrument used in Jewish religious ceremonies – was a shofar ever used in any of Elgar’s own performances, I wonder? I believe that serious but unsuccessful efforts were made to obtain a genuine shofar for this performance. In the end a Jerusalem Temple Trumpet was used instead. This is a long, natural trumpet with a curved bell – it looked rather like a hockey stick – and it made a terrific, penetrating sound which projected prominently – as it should – through the rest of the orchestra. The player was positioned at the side of the risers where the choir were seated so he was well above the rest of the orchestra and this enhanced the exciting effect.

Another important touch was the use of nine male members of the chorus as a Chorus of Apostles – to make up the twelve along with the three named soloists. I have only encountered this arrangement once before – and never in live performance. Sir Mark Elder used it in his very fine recording of the work and I covered the background in my review of that release. In essence, Elgar himself sometimes used this arrangement; the last time was at a Hereford Three Choirs performance in 1921. This group of men sing a few short passages that are normally sung by all the men of the chorus. The passages are brief but the effect is telling, especially when experienced live.

Just as telling as the use of the Chorus of Apostles and the Jerusalem Temple Trumpet was Adrian Partington’s decision to use young voices as his semi chorus in the closing section of the work. The semi chorus represent Angels and so it makes all the difference in the world if the singers have a different timbre to that of the ladies in the main chorus. The Girl Choristers of Worcester Cathedral and girls from the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir were absolutely superb. The sound that they made was suitably ethereal – they were positioned behind the main choir, at the top of the staging – but it was clear, focussed and pure in tone. Theirs was a moving contribution.

The Festival Chorus itself put on a fine show. Following in the score I could readily see how attentive they were to Elgar’s copious dynamic markings – it’s so important – and their singing was responsive and committed. The ladies were excellent – their delivery of the moving passage after Peter’s denial (‘And the Lord turned…’) was particularly fine. The gentlemen also did well though I had the impression that on occasion they were not as incisive as the ladies; perhaps this was an unintended consequence of the fact that nine strong voices – the Chorus of Apostles – were separated from the main body of the chorus. However, a few very minor blemishes could not detract from the overall excellence of the choral singing. There was much sensitive singing to admire and at the Big Moments the chorus really delivered.

A fine team of soloists had been assembled. I thought Sarah Fox sounded a little tremulous of tone in the role of The Angel early on. However, she soon settled and offered some lovely singing as Mary. The other female soloist, the contralto, has a very challenging role as Mary Magdalene. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the music in the ‘Tower of Magdala’ episode in Part I. The music is very strange and unsettled with constant changes in tempo. Rhythmically it’s very difficult indeed and I wasn’t sure that Claudia Huckle was entirely comfortable hereabouts. Some of the entries seemed snatched and I had the impression that she wasn’t completely in control of the role. However, her rich-toned voice gave a good deal of pleasure. John Mark Ainsley was a ringing St John, his passages of narration clear. There were times when I thought that Neal Davies pushed his tone a little but he certainly conveyed the impetuousness of St Peter and, as ever, he was completely reliable.

There were two stand-out soloists. Brindley Sherratt sang Judas, reprising the role he had sung to such excellent effect on the Elder recording. His tone has a slight edge to it – or maybe he imparts edge when singing this role; either way, it’s appropriate. That edge serves to differentiate him from the other male soloists, which is in keeping with the character. Michael Kennedy has pointed out that in The Apostles ‘Judas is depicted as a zealot who over-reached himself in the certainty that Jesus would deliver himself from his captors by a miracle.’ I thought Sherratt portrayed the misguided Judas very well. The high point of his performance was the long, tortured aria of remorse – actually, it’s almost a scena –after the betrayal. Sherratt was magnificent in this section.

The role of the object of his betrayal, Jesus, was sung by Marcus Farnsworth. Described in the programme as a bass he sounds to me more like a baritone. His firm, evenly produced voice was ideal for this role and in both sound and physical appearance he seemed suitably youthful – Jesus was, after all, in his early thirties. The big challenge in this role is not to sound sanctimonious or ‘preachy’, a trap into which John Carol Case fell in the Boult recording. Farnsworth was completely successful and his calm, dignified singing gave me great pleasure.

The Apostles is a long work and, potentially, it’s an unwieldy one – by comparison The Kingdom is a much tauter score – so it needs a very steady hand on the tiller. Fortunately, in Adrian Partington we had the surest of guides to Elgar’s complex score. He gave us a performance that was rich in detail – Elgar’s abundant markings relating to dynamics and tempo were scrupulously observed yet in a manner that seemed wholly natural. Yet despite the detail it was evident that he had the Big Picture firmly in his sights at all times: the sweep of the score was thrillingly conveyed. It was evident at all times, both from what we could hear and from the CCTV pictures of the conductor in action ,that the score was in the hands of someone who loved the music and believed in it completely. I particularly welcomed the fact that, while the full effect of Elgar’s glorious orchestral writing was realised, he achieved an excellent balance between singers and orchestra: at the concerts I’ve attended only Juraj Valčuha in Mahler (review) has matched this level of control. The Philharmonia played superbly.  Mr Partington’s pacing of the score seemed absolutely right at all times. The flowing speed adopted for ‘Turn ye to the stronghold’ may have raised eyebrows among those weaned on the Boult recording. However, it reminded me of the speed adopted on the Elder recording which I know to be smack on the metronome marking so I’m sure the tempo selection was right here and, thanks to the Elder recording, I’ve come to realise this is the right way to play the passage. Elsewhere, judgement of mood and pacing was unerring and throughout the performance the spirit of Elgar’s inspiration was conveyed, which is what matters most At the end of a long and tiring evening Adrian Partington and his combined forces brought The Apostles to a majestic and deeply satisfying conclusion.

I thought this was a triumphant performance of The Apostles but, more than that, it was a reading that moved and thrilled me very much.  I hope very much that one day at the Three Choirs this fine Elgar conductor will perform The Apostles and its sister oratorio The Kingdom in tandem as the composer envisaged.

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This was my final visit to the 2014 Three Choirs Festival. Next year the Festival will be held at Hereford and will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first meeting of the Three Choirs.

Artistic Director, Geraint Bowen, has devised a strong programme, which has just been announced. As we might expect on such a celebratory occasion, several choral ‘heavyweights’ will be heard. These will include The Dream of Gerontius, St. Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and the Verdi Requiem. But the programme also includes some exotic and/or rare pieces. There’ll be a performance of Messiaen’s gloriously excessive Turangalîla-Symphonie, a revival of Lux Aeterna by William Mathias (a 1982 Hereford Three Choirs commission), Nielsen’s Hymnus Amoris and a rare chance to hear Morning Heroes by Bliss under guest conductor, Sir Andrew Davis. There’ll also be a performance of the lovely Requiem by Bob Chilcott, from whom a set of Evensong canticles has also been commissioned. I can hardly wait.

The 2015 Festival will run from 25 July to 1 August. More details here.

John Quinn

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