Classical: Elgar Weekend Barbican Centre, London

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The Independent Culture
If you're looking for a parallel to show the difference between Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius and his two great New Testament oratorios, the moment comes in the later pages of Gerontius and The Apostles. Gerontius, about to enter the presence of God, hears the voices of friends still praying at his bedside back on earth. Their music has not been repeated since early on in the work and its surprising return brings with it a sense of poetry and magic, of two worlds suddenly glimpsed in a single perspective. In The Apostles, after the agony of Golgotha, the scene shifts to the sepulchre at resurrection morning. In the background there is the music of the shofar, recapitulated from an earlier scene that showed dawn breaking over the temple. The effect is precise and symbolic. Yet in artistic terms it seems calculated; just the sort of thing you would do if you happened to be depicting the resurrection at this point.

Problems like these are a worry to Elgarians, who might also have noted at the Barbican's Elgar weekend how the relative duration of loud choral music in The Apostles and The Kingdom did not render them thereby superior to the more restrained beauties of Gerontius, performed on Friday evening. Of the several enigmas this composer left to posterity, none is more curious than the failure of his two most operatically minded essays to hit the spot. He clouded the matter by filling both works with sublime melodies, superb vocal writing and a virtuoso display of structure that makes other composers' choral works seem like studies in Lego. Nearly everything in The Apostles and The Kingdom is wonderful. Yet there's still the nagging thought that in works which are uniquely of their kind, in a genre that will never be added to, Elgar himself could have done a little better.

If Richard Hickox harboured any such frustrations, they were well hidden on Saturday and Sunday, when he conducted the two works with a confidence that made him the natural successor of Boult and even of the composer. These works really need such determined advocacy if they are to survive in a world of very different values to those of the time in which they were created. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were no less devoted interpreters, the finely disciplined choir setting a cracking pace in the various malevolent fugues that animate the stories with no shortage of touching solos from wind and strings to match the cast of soloists. The key role of St Peter was nobly taken by Peter Coleman-Wright, while Linda Finnie was a darkly desperate Mary Magdalene. Like Milton's Satan, the best part was of Judas, rightly played by Matthew Best as both a cursed and defiant being. Did Elgar see echoes of himself in this character?

He certainly shared a sense of fellowship with Gerontius, one reason why John Aler's cherubic reading of the text on Friday was not to everyone's taste. But the London Symphony Chorus sang without spot or blemish, affirming once again the work as a classic of the English repertoire.