Martyn Brabbins leads a wonderful performance of The Apostles

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, The Apostles: Elizabeth Watts (soprano – The Angel Gabriel/The Blessed Virgin Mary), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano – Mary Magdalene/Narrator 2), Allan Clayton (tenor – St John/Narrator 1), Roderick Williams (baritone – Jesus), David Stout (baritone – St Peter); Brindley Sherratt (bass – Judas), BBC Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.10.2019. (CC)

Martyn Brabbins (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Originally slated in to be conducted by Sir Mark Elder, it was Martyn Brabbins, taking an evening off from conducting Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus at English National Opera, who took the helm for this performance. Brabbins had also stepped in for Elder at the Edinburgh Festival this year in The Kingdom, impressing Seen and Heard reviewer Simon Thompson (review). Back in 2014, Sir Andrew Davis had conducted Elgar’s The Kingdom for the First Night of the Proms that year (review).

First performed in 1903, The Apostles was commissioned by the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival. The piece, in the way it depicts the story of the apostles of Jesus and their reactions to the events around Christ’s death, includes a number of remarkable elements, not least what might here be appropriately referred to as its heavenly length. The scoring includes a shofar (an ancient type of horn used for religious purposes and played with gusto on this occasion by horn player Stephen Stirling). The text, by the composer himself, draws on a number of sources, including the so-called apocrypha. Elgar also gave a more than sympathetic hearing to the characters of Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene, with Judas having his own scene (‘Without the Temple’ from Part II). There is also the semi-chorus of apostles. Three of those are soloists (Peter, John and Judas) but the remaining nine, who sat front of stage with the main soloists, were taken by Brabbins from the Royal College of Music. Like just about everything else about this performance, they were superb.

That Brabbins can encompass Elgar as well as Birtwistle is remarkable. His tempos allowed for the discourse to take on a fluency; he commands the choir as easily as the orchestra, the discipline in the opening ‘The Spirit of the Lord’ as evident as was the beauty of Elgar’s music. Brabbins’ structural grasp ensured the vast expanse of the piece flew by (Part I is 65 minutes, Part II 50 minutes); the dynamic range of the piece, too, is huge. That shofar, that introduces the dawn, should sound precarious (it did) but is as individual a sound as can be imagined. The combined choruses of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir, a sea of faces, was supremely well balanced, relishing passages where Elgar was at his most phantasmagoric (‘Let us fill ourselves with wine’).

The roster of soloists looks like a Who’s Who of the best available today. Only David Stout is lesser known from this list: he sang Selby de Selby in Matt Rogers’ The Virtue of Things at the Linbury in 2015 (review) and sang Baron Douphol in one of the myriad Traviatas at Covent Garden that have come my way over the years (review), not to mention a Fritz Kothner Meistersinger at ENO (review). One fervently hopes his reading of the role of Peter for this performance is career-defining, for he was unfailingly strong and clear both of line and of diction: he positively shone in his scene with the Servants (‘In the Palace of the High Priest’ from Part II).

Elizabeth Watts, who impressed in a Simon Rattle performance of  Britten’s Spring Symphony in 2018 at the Barbican (review) and who more recently gave some fabulous Beethoven (‘Ah, Perfido!’ and ‘Abscheulicher’ at the Beethoven Prom this year with the NDR Symphony Orchestra and Manze, review) was again absolutely radiant as The Angel Gabriel and as The Blessed Virgin Mary. Roderick Williams, for whom everything he touches seems to turn to gold, was as commanding as ever as Jesus, while Brindley Sherratt, last seen as the Commendatore in the Royal Opera’s recent rather lacklustre Don Giovanni (review), was resolute as Judas in his big scene, stoic in his acceptance of his end.

The last time I encountered Allan Clayton, at the Proms, I said that every time I hear him he seems to get better (he was singing the roles of Narrator and Centurion in Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ, review) and that certainly seems to be carried through to his all-encompassing contribution here as John and Narrator 1.

While Watts was garbed in off-white and Coote in pink, one did wonder whether the female soloists were colour-coded (with white for the Virgin and pink moving towards a Scarlet Woman). One is so used to Alice Coote being on form and absolutely within her characters. In early October at ENO in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (review), Coote had been announced as suffering from a viral infection for several weeks, and one felt she is now almost there but operating a little below full power: there was still a feeling that the whole apparatus was not quite being used. But the fact is that Coote’s musicality is supreme, and her performance of Mary Magdalene and Narrator 2 remained one of integrity.

The overall impression, though, was of an incredibly moving performance of a piece that, without doubt, should be performed more. Sir Mark Elder’s recording of The Apostles was a MusicWeb International Recording of the Month in August 2012 (review) and hearing it the day after this performance just confirms the stature of this piece. Like Wagner, the music might be long in terms of minutes and seconds but somehow one’s perception of time changes when experiencing the score. Wonderful music.

Colin Clarke