If you’ve never been to a grand-scale choral work at the Royal Albert Hall, I’d urge you to do so at the earliest opportunity. This wasn’t my first visit to the Proms, and I’ve experienced oratorios, requiems and passions galore in other places, but to hear hundreds of accomplished singers filling this vast circular space was new territory for me. The hall seemed made for the occasion.
I expect the programme was a novelty for many in the audience, as The Apostles is rarely performed, which is a pity as it contains some fabulous music and some thoughtful ideas. Its conception was sparked off by a remark of one of Elgar’s schoolmasters, that the apostles, who went on to lay the foundations of Christianity, most likely started off as no more noteworthy than the young Edward and his peers. The composition came to fruition much later. Elgar considered developing some earlier sketches to fulfil a commission for the 1900 Birmingham Festival, but instead wrote The Dream of Gerontius, which remains so much more familiar. The Apostles appeared a few years later, focusing particularly on Peter, John and Judas, with the latter depicted as being not so ‘ordinary’ as the others. Elgar had been struck by Archbishop Whately of Dublin’s theory that Judas – a thinker, more well-to-do, maybe even an aristocrat – carried out the betrayal not for purely selfish ends, but because he believed it would force Jesus to save himself and thereby prove himself the Son of God. Judas’ resulting despair when his plot backfires is key to the drama of the piece, portrayed by extremely poignant music and carefully chosen biblical texts, both for Judas himself and the choral commentary.
Elgar gave a significant role to Mary Magdalene, as a metaphor for human fallibility and sinfulness, with restless accompaniment to her heartfelt words. Reflecting the undoubtedly patriarchal nature of the times, though, much of the work is about the menfolk. As it happened, the majority of tonight’s promenaders in the packed arena were male. We lost one before even getting underway, as there was some sort of commotion, causing Sir Mark Elder, twice on the brink of launching into the Prologue, to lower his baton until the offender made his exit and attention was restored. The remainder certainly got a magnificent performance for their £5.
The Hallé were in fine form, sensitively accompanying chorus and soloists alike. Up next to the organ, a breath-defying instrument called a shofar realistically represented in rising sixths a ram’s horn that would herald the dawn. Sideways-on to the stage, I enjoyed a perspective revealing the close rapport between choir and conductor despite their distance apart. No wonder the combined choir, made up of the Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir and London Philharmonic Choir, produced such a professional sound, as teamwork and emotional engagement were tangible. They made a good job of the varying colours, dynamics and textures, interpreting Elgar’s wide range of writing and creating real dramatic intensity. Some of the most stunning moments of the evening came in the men-only or women-only passages, particularly a tender four-part women’s chorus highlighting Peter’s remorse after his denial of Christ. Jacques Imbrailo gave a wonderful Proms debut as Jesus, not only displaying a lovely, rich, clear voice but also evoking just the right combination of gentleness and authority that the role demanded. Alice Coote was similarly believable as Mary Magdalene, singing with feeling and a sense of wonder, devotion and repentance. Students from the Royal Northern College of Music and University of Manchester also deserve special mention for their assured contribution as the nine apostles ‘in the background’ behind Judas, Peter and John, as this performance made use of the 1921 revisions to the original score, giving us the complete dozen.
There was action overload in the betrayal scene. Prefaced with menacing rhythms on brass, timpani and gong, an inspired passage of percussive jangly music on piccolo, glockenspiel, oboe and triangle told of the urgent counting of thirty pieces of silver. The drama intensified with a wall of sound from the chorus – ‘Crucify Him!’ – followed eventually by the subtlest of muted strings representing the words from the cross. The shofar made a welcome return to announce the resurrection. The ascension scene, with appropriately rising music, gave the chorus a final opportunity to shine in a series of crystal-clear alleluias, beautifully controlled and sustained, like the sun coming out after a dark night of the soul.
Sir Mark Elder directs
a stellar cast and
large-scale choral forces,
reviving a major work of
the British choral
tradition. Elgar conceived
The Apostles as a
schoolboy, but the
project came to fruition
only in 1903 – after both
The Dream of Gerontius
and a visit to Bayreuth to hear Wagner’s The Ring
and Parsifal. Elgar explores the inner feelings of
Judas Iscariot with dramatic intensity, and
Christ’s anguished cry from the cross
becomes a wordless lament.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP
Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodds