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Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

The Apostles

The Hallé Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Hallé
Recording details: May 2012
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, United Kingdom
Produced by Steve Portnoi
Engineered by Steve Portnoi & Niall Gault
Release date: September 2012
Total duration: 114 minutes 19 seconds


‘A set absolutely not to be missed’ (Gramophone)

‘I'm inclined to rate this new Hallé version the most nearly definitely Apostles yet’ (BBC Music Magazine)

‘Elder's performance has shown that, though the narrative thread is sometimes quite weak, the best of the score is top-quality Elgar’ (The Guardian)

‘[The Apostles] is performed beautifully throughout and achieves an otherwise elusive spirituality. Everyone is on quite spectacular form. If proof were needed of the importance of The Apostles then this release is the evidence’ (MusicWeb International)

‘An undoubted highlight of Sir Mark Elder's tenure of the Hallé has been his series of Elgar recordings, and this account of The Apostles is surely one of the best. A magnificent cast … and there is plenty of impressively enthusiastic singing from the Hallé Choir’ (Presto Classical)
Since his boyhood Elgar had been fascinated by the characters of Christ’s 12 Apostles. As early as the 1880s he sketched some music for them, but went no further. In 1898 the Birmingham Festival asked him for a work for 1900. He toyed with the idea of The Apostles but by January 1900 had abandoned it for The Dream of Gerontius. Music intended for Judas became the Angel of the Agony’s music in Gerontius. Despite the relative failure of Gerontius at its first performance in October 1900, Birmingham kept faith with Elgar and commissioned an oratorio for 1903.

Elgar returned to the subject of The Apostles, intending that it should be in three parts, the third of these covering the ground we now know as The Kingdom. But he was unwell during 1902-3 (‘lumbago bad; chills on the liver; eyes troublesome’) and decided to alter the design of the whole work. He wrote to his friend A. J. Jaeger at Novello’s: ‘I propose that they produce Parts I and II of The Apostles—this portion is complete in itself … The concluding portion of the work (Part III to round it off), much of which was written first, you can have any time later.’ He was worried too because he could not find English singers capable of doing justice to the roles of Peter and Judas: ‘Oh! These singers—where are their brains?’ Because he found the English singers too ‘white’, he hankered after the Dutch basses Anton Van Rooy and Johannes Messchaert, whom he had heard while abroad.

Elgar completed the full score in 1903 and wrote on it ‘In Longdon Marsh’, a place he had loved since boyhood. He also inscribed lines from William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise:

To what a Heaven the Earth might grow
If fear beneath the Earth were laid,
If hope failed not, nor love decayed.

Elgar himself conducted the work’s first performance at the Birmingham Festival on 14 October 1903. Again he left everything too late, as he had done in 1900 with Gerontius. He did not complete the full score until 17 August, which left just eight weeks for the six soloists, choir and orchestra to learn a difficult new work. He was still correcting proofs at the end of September.

Much had happened to Elgar’s reputation since 1900. Gerontius may have (temporarily) failed, but the excitement of a new king (Edward VII) in 1901 was a boost to Elgar’s music. In rapid succession after Gerontius came the first two Pomp and Circumstance Marches (with No 1 containing the tune that was to become ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ in the Coronation Ode) and the overture Cockaigne. Even so, the response to The Apostles was respectful rather than ecstatic. After Hans Richter conducted the first Manchester performance with the Hallé in February 1904, there was no ‘scene of great enthusiasm’ such as had greeted Gerontius in Manchester the previous year. That sympathetic critic Arthur Johnstone wrote in The Manchester Guardian: ‘The Apostles unquestionably being much more austere and difficult to understand than Gerontius, we are inclined to accept the simpler explanation that the audience did not like it so well.’

Thus it has ever been. The more dramatic Gerontius has remained more popular and more often performed. The Apostles and The Kingdom are offshoots of Bachian oratorio, albeit sprinkled with Wagner dust. In recent years they have gained ground and have benefited from a new generation of Elgar conductors ready to examine the scores afresh. Sir Mark Elder has undertaken extensive research which means that this performance is probably the first since Elgar conducted The Apostles in Hereford on 7 September 1921, at the Three Choirs Festival, to incorporate Elgar’s intentions at several points in the oratorio. A proof copy of the vocal score preserved at the Birthplace Museum at Broadheath, near Worcester, contains detailed information about the music to be sung by a semi-chorus of nine male voices at 30 specified places in the score. With John, Peter and Judas they make up the total of 12 Apostles. Elgar indicates by name which of the three male soloists should sing when only two are required. He wrote all these indications in red ink. He called this group ‘Apostles cho’ or ‘Ap.ch’ for short. Sometimes he indicates that they should sing with the solo Apostles, sometimes with the full chorus or sometimes instead of the chorus. Sir Mark has formed a special young choir of nine voices from the Royal Northern College of Music and the University of Manchester to undertake this part of the oratorio.

Elgar employs a complex system of leitmotifs, many of which occur in both The Apostles and The Kingdom, much of the music for which he had written before he decided to make it into the third part of The Apostles. The choral writing in The Apostles is arguably an advance on Gerontius. As for the orchestration, one needs only to remember that In the South and the symphonies were round the next corner. He used one of the largest orchestras for which he ever wrote. To a full complement of the normal orchestra he added bass clarinet, double bassoon, organ, shofar (see below) and among the percussion small gong, large gong, antique cymbals, glockenspiel, tambourine and triangle.

Elgar studied biblical scholars’ writings as he compiled the libretto and put his own gloss on the characters of Judas and Mary Magdalene. The finest music in the work is, I believe, given to Judas, almost amounting to a self-portrait of the depressive Elgar. He avoided a graphic Crucifixion scene as ‘too awful’ and presents it instead as it affected Judas and Mary. Listeners may agree with what Jaeger wrote in 1903 about the music’s ‘message of beauty and peace in these days of unprecedented stress and complexity’. How much truer that is today.

The music

Prologue: The Spirit of the Lord
A short and solemn orchestral prelude introduces the main theme of the oratorio. The chorus enters and further themes are heard, including a new version of the principal theme with new harmonies and a sequence of chords representing Christ the Man of Sorrows.

Part 1
The calling of the Apostles
The tenor soloist’s opening narration precedes three descriptive episodes: ‘In the Mountain—Night’ evokes a sultry Palestine night by means of three distant oboes and a cor anglais. Muted brass, harp and strings depict Christ at prayer (the harp has a major part in this score). The soprano (Angel Gabriel) sings ‘The voice of Thy watchman!’ and is interrupted by an orchestral description of ‘Dawn’ that begins with a distant E flat ascending to C flat on the shofar, an ancient Hebrew instrument made of ram’s horn. In most performances this is imitated by modern instruments, but for this performance Sir Mark Elder has tracked down a genuine shofar player. When it sounds in full, it is joined by trumpets and horns. Contraltos and tenors proclaim that ‘the face of all the East is now ablaze with light’. So is Elgar’s orchestration as the shofar dominates this dazzling sunrise and the voices within the temple sing the ‘Morning Psalm’. The tenor narrates the choosing of the Apostles. At the word ‘disciples’ an important new theme (Fellowship) occurs in the orchestra. In the subsequent chorus, ‘The Lord hath chosen them’, we meet John, Peter and Judas (sung by tenor, baritone and bass), the words and music illustrating their characters, particularly that of Judas. The section ends with a grandioso version of the chorus, after which Christ (baritone) sends them forth to music of dignified solemnity.

By the wayside
This is pastoral Elgar. The wayside could be in Herefordshire! Jesus is walking with his mother Mary and John, Peter, Judas and others. Jesus, accompanied by violas, utters conversationally what are known as the Beatitudes, while the others comment among themselves. The only sour note is from Judas. Elgar based this part of the libretto on Longfellow’s versified life of Christ, The Divine Tragedy.

By the sea of Galilee
The tenor tells us that Jesus has ordered the Apostles to sail to Capernaum, while he goes into the mountains to pray. In the Tower of Magdala, Mary Magdalene (mezzo-soprano) asks for forgiveness for her dissolute life. An interlude for the chorus and Mary Magdalene that Elgar calls Fantasy (‘Let us fill ourselves with costly wine’) merges into an orchestral description of the storm at sea, during which the terrified Apostles see Christ walking upon the waters towards them. Peter’s attempt to emulate him fails from lack of faith, the storm abates and the men and Mary sing ‘Of a truth Thou art the Son of God’.

In Caesarea Philippi, Peter acknowledges Christ’s divinity. Christ’s ‘Upon this rock I will build My church’ is followed by the grand chorus ‘Proclaim unto them’.

In Capernaum, Mary Magdalene’s plea for help is answered by Mary the Mother of God, though Magdalene’s washing of Christ’s feet with her tears provokes a spiteful outburst from the women’s chorus. Beautiful scoring for woodwind accompanies her solo ‘Hide not Thy face far from me’ and leads into the devotional ensemble ‘Turn you to the stronghold’.

Part 2
Introduction: Elgar re-visits some of the principal themes in an adagio introduction for orchestra …

The betrayal
The tenor describes the Apostles’ journeys and their miracles. The chief priests and Pharisees decide to kill Jesus. They find an ally in Judas who, on the promise of 30 pieces of silver, tells them that whomsoever he kisses in the garden of Gethsemane is Jesus—‘hold Him fast’.

In the High Priest’s palace, Peter thrice denies any connection with Jesus. A sustained D flat on solo viola accompanies the women’s chorus as they describe Peter’s remorse. Inside the temple, a service is in progress into which Judas interpolates his anguished musings (taken by Elgar from the Psalms). The congregation chants over a steady staccato bass while Judas recalls his admiration for Jesus with a theme from the Beatitudes scene. Hardly anywhere in all Elgar’s work did he score with such skill and inspiration as in the background to Judas’s words: ‘We shall be hereafter as though we had never been; for the breath in our nostrils is as smoke … Our spirit shall vanish as the soft air’. Cries of ‘Crucify Him!’ are heard. Judas’s death is depicted by a short orchestral episode in which, to quote Elgar, ‘The man of action staggers about in a ghastly way’. Violent chords are followed by a sustained ppp.

Muted violins and violas play a short introduction over which Elgar wrote (but did not set) the words ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ (Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?). The chorus acknowledges ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ and the Virgin Mary and John talk about their grief.

At the sepulchre
The mezzo-soprano soloist tells of the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb. It is dawn and the dawn scene in Part 1 is recalled along with the shofar that merges into Alleluias chanted by Angels who ask: ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead?’ From this point the music gains an extra spirituality and intensity that are almost exclusively Elgarian.

The Ascension
We are now approaching the exalted end of this work. The movement begins with a short ensemble for the Apostles. A long solo for Jesus, constructed from the principal themes, contains the injunction to ‘go … and teach all nations’. The female narrator describes Christ’s ascension before the Apostles and the two Marys plead: ‘Give us one heart, and one way.’ This culminates in triumphant Alleluias as the words of Christ in heaven are combined with declarations of faith by the Apostles and the women. The Alleluias return and Elgar’s inspiration is white hot as he finds a new theme to accompany the words ‘Give us one heart’. This is presented twice in glowingly rich orchestral colours and leads directly into a fortissimo brass enunciation of the opening theme of the work, while the chorus affirms that ‘the Kingdom is the Lord’s’. The music builds towards a huge climax, marked nobilmente, at the words ‘the power of God’. Gradually the intensity slackens into radiant Alleluias, and Peter and John and the two Marys sing ‘In His love and in His pity He redeemed them’ to a phrase that sounds like an echo of Gerontius’s ‘And thou art calling me’. A halo of string sound surrounds the last Alleluia until a swelling chord of E flat major ends this affecting work.

Michael Kennedy © 2012

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