Elgar’s act of faith

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Daniel Jaffé reviews Sir Mark Elder's performance of The Apostles with the Hallé

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BBC PromsFrom the low A flat note which opens The Apostles, there’s no doubt about how key (no pun intended) that work is as an expression of Elgar’s faith. A similar soft low A flat opens his Symphony No. 1, inaugurating the procession which Elgar described as an ‘ideal call – in the sense of persuasion, not coercion or command – & something above every day & sordid things’. The connection between this and an oratorio concerning Jesus’s call to his disciples – ‘ordinary men’ as Stephen Johnson’s thought-provoking programme note explains was Elgar’s premise – is clear.

Given this, it is no surprise that The Apostles contains some of Elgar’s most striking music and a Richard Strauss-like mastery of colourful depiction, whether of dawn as seen by the watchers on the temple roof – heralded by the striking rising fanfare of a shofar and the sonic burst of bronze-like daylight – or the woodwind’s silvery glint as Judas is first given his payment to betray his master, only to reappear when he later hurls the coins upon the temple floor.

All this was splendidly depicted in this Proms performance by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder’s direction. Joining them were the well-drilled choruses of the Hallé and London Philharmonic – diction so clear that the printed libretto was almost superfluous – and a superb line-up of singers, baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Jesus being perhaps the most outstanding with his rich yet well-focused tone and noble deportment. Imbrailo has previously performed in the Christ-like title role of Britten's Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, so it was striking to see in this Proms performance Judas sung by Clive Bayley, who had portrayed Budd’s evil foe, Claggart (albeit not at Glyndebourne): I couldn’t help feeling, though, that the poor man with his characteristically brooding, sardonic expression was type-cast, and the effect might have been rather different if, say, John Tomlinson had taken the role of this anti-hero. Elgar, after all, shows Judas not to be so much evil incarnate but as wrong-headedly trying, through his betrayal, to force Jesus’s hand to reveal his divine power (a motive subsequently hi-jacked by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber).

The two female roles were taken on engagingly by the bright-toned soprano Rebecca Evans and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote. At least one critic has complained that Coote was not the contralto Elgar specified, and one can imagine that a darker, more ‘earthy’ voice would have suited Mary Magdalene: but my impression was Coote brought the role as much to life as is possible, given that Elgar, who seems to have shared Mary Magdalene’s fear of being forsaken by her God, gives more emphasis to this quality in his music than her more positive love of Jesus.

So is The Apostles an unjustly neglected work, overshadowed by the more obviously dramatic Dream of Gerontius? While the sincerity of Elgar’s portrait of Jesus’s ministry and of his disciples is palpable, I’m not sure that this has resulted in a flawless work of art. Both the roles of Mary Magdalene and Judas suggest new perspectives on these often two-dimensional characters, yet fall short of the fleshed-out characters to be found even in some of Wagner’s most perfidious specimens (not an irrelevant comparison, since Judas in particular owes something to Wagner’s Alberich).

There is also a brave naivety in Elgar’s work, setting lines such as ‘And when He had spoken these things, while He blessed them He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight; and they looked steadfastly toward heaven’ with an absolutely straight face. So what? Perhaps one should be able to accept the naivety of such a depiction as part and parcel of Elgar’s faith, and while I’m not sure that The Apostles is a neglected masterpiece, it certainly deepens and reinforces one’s understanding of Elgar by revealing aspects of the composer’s sensibility and invention not to be found in any of his other works.

The BBC Proms run until 8 September. Every Prom is broadcast live on Radio 3 and a selection can be seen on BBC Four.