Gardner Conducts First Rate Performance of The Apostles with Starry Cast

15/08/2016

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom EIF 2016 (4) – Elgar, The Apostles: Soloists, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, NYCoS National Girls’ Choir, Royal Conservatoire Voices, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Edward Gardner (conductor), Usher Hall, 14.8.2016. (SRT)

Mary/Angel Gabriel – Sophie Bevan
Mary Magdalene – Karen Cargill
John/Narrator – Alan Clayton
Jesus – Jacques Imbrailo
Peter – Marcus Farnsworth
Judas – John Relyea

Elgar in Scotland can be a pretty hard sell compared to south of the border, so it was heartening to see that, during the first weekend of the festival and with so much else on, the Usher Hall was still pretty full (though not packed) for this performance of The Apostles. As well it should be, for this was, to use a very un-Elgarian term, a cracker.

Traditionally, this sort of thing has been what the EIF’s Usher Hall series does best: a big, lush performance of a Romantic choral-orchestral work with an all-star cast. Indeed, this cast was about as starry as you could get for this work at the moment, and they delivered on every front.  Jacques Imbrailo sang Jesus beautifully, warm and humane rather than commanding, though that was entirely in keeping with his music.  Alan Clayton sang the narration with clarion-clarity and Marcus Farnsworth brought bright precision to Peter’s music.  Sophie Bevan’s gleaming soprano supplied angelic purity in spades, while Karen Cargill’s throaty mezzo endued the character of Mary Magdalene with requisite amounts of angst and passion.  Only John Relyea induced some doubts in me, and that’s because he was, if anything, too good at his music: his huge, granite bass brought an almost titanic grandeur to the part of Judas, which made him sound as though Wotan had arrived in the wrong concert, rather than coming from the simplistic background that had inspired Elgar in the first place.

The different choral groups all sounded first rate.  The Edinburgh Festival Chorus did a great job with a big sing, even if their diction was a little occluded at times, and they managed the big, broad sound that we so instinctively associate with Elgar as though they had been doing it for years.  They were particularly impressive in the climax of the first part, the commissioning of the Apostles, but even when they were providing incidental backdrop to the actions of the soloists, such as the temple singers in the dawn or Judas scenes, they were impressive.  It was a great treat to have the NYCoS girls providing glimmering Angelic sounds from on high (literally), and it’s a nice touch to have the Conservatoire voices providing a semi-chorus of nine men to represent the rest of the Apostles separately from the big chorus.

The RSNO ably demonstrated their Elgarian chops last year with a marvellous performance of The Dream of Gerontius, and their Apostles was every bit as fine, with warm, Romantic strings, singing winds (fantastic in the dawn scene) and rich Elgarian brass that underpinned the whole sound with the closest thing I can think of to Edwardian confidence, while still managing to sound genuinely sinister in the approach to the crucifixion scene.

Edward Gardner, surely the driving force behind the choice of repertoire as well as this performance, steered the ship with the hand of a master, shaping every phrase with care, and controlling the ebb and flow of the great structure as to the manner born.  His years at the helm of ENO show through in the way he taps into the drama at the heart of the work, such as the long wait for the dawn in Part One or, most tellingly of all, the mastery of the Judas scene and the crucifixion.  The masterful ending, depicting the Ascension and the interface of heaven and earth, left me feeling stunned at its power.  Keith Elcombe of Manchester University once wrote that the symphonic sweep of The Apostles’ conclusion rivals even that of Götterdämmerung.  Tonight, perhaps for the first time, I believed him.

The 2016 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 29th August at venues across the city.  For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson

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