Elgar’s oratorios The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906) are the manifestation of a fascination that he had held since his childhood in Worcester. When alerted by one of his schoolmasters that at the time of their calling into the service of Christ, the twelve apostles were perhaps no more intelligent than those assembled in that school room, Elgar’s imagination swelled and mused on thoughts of the Apostles’ youth and humanity; their faith, their weaknesses, their astonishment in Christ’s miracles and their grief at his crucifixion. Whilst Elgar’s own religious convictions would be subject to many tests of solidarity throughout his life, it is clear that several of his major choral works received at least their initial inspiration from divine topics.

Edward Elgar in the early 1900s
Edward Elgar in the early 1900s

As with the first performance of The Dream of Gerontius (Birmingham Festival, 1900), Elgar left the completion of the work, publication and rehearsals too late, and the Apostles first performances nationally suffered a public and critical reception from which it has still to fully recover. It is possible that The Apostles, more than The Kingdom (which may lay claim to a host of more inspired musical merits, not least ‘The sun goeth down’), may forever suffer comparison with its more readily accepted and approachable choral predecessors, including, of course, The Dream and the cantata Caractacus. Such comparisons are unfair, as the music of The Apostles much more points the way to forthcoming masterpieces – the Violin Concerto and the two symphonies – rather than reflecting on Elgar’s work at the close of the nineteenth century.

Following a soloists’ rehearsal, a brief discussion with Sir Mark Elder revealed that The Apostles is perhaps the most difficult of Elgar’s larger choral works, and whilst this may be true musically, I would suggest that it is also the hardest for the listener. The text, drawn from scripture by Elgar, is extremely narrative and occasionally difficult to follow. Sadly it might also be considered monotonous and repetitive in its presentation of ideas.

The opening prelude and chorus do not possess the same attention-arresting impact that begins The Kingdom, but rather the listener is lulled into a realm of restrained reflection and prayer. The Hallé Choir, trained excellently by Frances Cooke, were uniformly magnificent in their understanding of the sensitive text and produced a rich sound with good diction that might be the envy of any chorus, amateur or professional. I believe it to be a pity that, whilst Elgar’s choral writing in The Apostles is extraordinarily refined, it is not necessarily any greater or more imaginative than that of The Dream, at least in the respect that it is not as powerful, dramatic or varied, and there are few moments in which a choir such as the Hallé can really flex their well-toned muscles; within, you will find no Demons’ Chorus or Clang of Arms.

The Hallé Orchestra were on excellent form and no doubt grilled to within an inch of perfection by Sir Mark in rehearsal. Sir Mark’s attention to detail textually, dramatically, lyrically and so on is a testament to British orchestral playing and, I believe, places the Hallé Orchestra on a podium that it might share with any of the great European and American orchestras. The inclusion of an off-stage shofar (a long trumpet-like instrument, placed not more than ten feet from my seat) was a rare experience and served to highlight the Hallé’s thorough research into the score and performance history. This research was exaggerated further by the inclusion of a small chorus of nine male singers from the RNCM who made up a complete complement of twelve apostles that sat and sang at various points behind the three named apostles.

The soloists without exception were commendable in their reading of this complex score, and interpretations of Jesus and Judas especially warrant elaboration. Jacques Imbrailo (Jesus) is presented with an extremely passive text and music that suggests Christ was mild-mannered rather than a theological radical, and his rich, warm and well-rounded tone soared like the dove of peace he was representing. Brindley Sherratt (Judas) is easily assigned the most dramatic music of the oratorio and in Judas’ desperation and resulting suicide, Sherratt gave us a passionate account. Amongst Judas’ music prior to his betrayal of Christ, we hear what is perhaps the most interesting word-painting in the orchestra as Elgar employs the glockenspiel to represent the cold shimmering of thirty pieces of silver being weighed out.

In the female ranks Rebecca Evans was a sweet angel and a mournful Mary, whilst one might suggest that mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is to Sir Mark what Janet Baker was to Sir John, and I eagerly look forward to her performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Hallé on Thursday 10 May. This particular concert is also being repeated on Friday 10 August at the BBC Proms (Prom 37) with augmented forces.