Sir Mark Elder Champions Elgar’s The Apostles in Manchester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar:  Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, Hallé Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 5. 5.2012 (MC)

Elgar: The Apostles, Op. 49 (1903)

Rebecca Evans, soprano (The Angel Gabriel/The Blessed Virgin Mary)
Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano (Mary Magdalene/Narrator 2)
Paul Groves, tenor (Narrator 1/John)
Jacques Imbrailo, baritone (Jesus) David Kempster, bass-baritone (Peter)
Brindley Sherratt, bass (Judas)

Each season the Hallé’s music director Sir Mark Elder customarily programmes a large-scale work or two. In recent years we have had the Elgar oratorios The Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom, and concert performances of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Die Walküre, also a semi-staged production of Verdi’s Falstaff. In the last few weeks the Hallé Orchestra have collaborated with the Royal Exchange Theatre in a superb production of Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Lowry, Salford.

For Elgar’s The Apostles the latest large-scale offering there was certainly an uplifting feeling of keen anticipation in the packed Bridgewater Hall prior to the performance. Dedicated ‘To the Greater Glory of God’ The Apostles, a large scale oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra with organ, is a major score of the British choral tradition. Elgar had selected his own texts from Bible and the Apocrypha and introduced the oratorio himself at the Birmingham Triennial Festival in 1903.

Eschewing histrionics, one hardly noticed Sir Mark who just got on with the job of directing this substantial work. This was a highly assured performance given the difficult task of bringing the massive forces together coherently. I particularly admired Sir Mark’s unerring control of the massive dynamic extremes with tempi that felt judicious. Playing with incisiveness and a potent power when appropriate, the Hallé Orchestra demonstrated their increasing prowess on the international stage.

In radiant voice, I don’t think that I have heard the Hallé Choirs sound better. The sextet of soloists was passionately committed too. Standing out wonderfully was baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Jesus, solidly projecting his richly mellow and expressive timbre with purpose around the hall. A perfect choice as the First Narrator/John was tenor Paul Groves, who impressed with his steady bright and clear diction. As Judas the bass Brindley Sherratt was well powered, polished and authoritative. I felt that bass-baritone David Kempster in the role of Peter required greater amplitude and improved diction. As Mary Magdalene/Second Narrator the mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was in glorious, reverential voice which she projected well. Soprano Rebecca Evans in the parts of the Angel Gabriel/Virgin Mary was bright and moderately warm toned but at times felt overpowered by the orchestra and her voice was unable to carry to all corners of the hall.

Right from the orchestral prelude the choir intoning the words from St. Luke’s Gospel To preach the acceptable year of the Lord sent a shiver down the spine making no mistake that we had embarked on a visionary journey. In The Calling of the Apostles section the off-stage winds that were supposed to represent distant music were ineffective; sounding as if they were part of the main orchestra. It stated in the programme notes that a genuine shofar player had been found. That’s as maybe but it certainly wasn’t a traditional Hebrew Ram’s horn instrument being played. From my seat it looked like a crossbreed of some sort; a long and straight, narrow bored horn with a bell. Nevertheless the playing of the instrument by Bob Farley positioned at the side of the hall made a splendid impact. A time for quiet refection after the moving atmosphere of Part 1 was spoilt infuriatingly by someone who felt obliged to clap almost immediately. No doubt that will have ruined that section of the live recording that was being made. At the beginning of Part 2 the solemn orchestral prelude to the scene of The Betrayal of Christ was remarkable, with the doom-laden brass being lightened by the strings and winds then darkening again with all the drama of a Puccini opera. Depicting the crucifixion, the disturbing Golgotha section was memorable for the wonderful orchestral weight especially the shadowy-toned brass and percussion. The electrifying final section The Ascension,covering Christ’s Ascendion with all the forces uniting in a colossal Alleluia was one of the most moving things I’ve experienced in classical music.

As leading Elgarians, Sir Mark and his Hallé players and singers certainly did justice to the elevated inspiration of Elgar’s score creating a performance that will stay long in the memory. Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé is to perform The Apostles at Prom 37 at the Royal Albert Hall on 10th August.

Michael Cookson