All critics have their blind spots, and mine is Elgar, so it was with curiosity rather than hope that I went to hear ‘The Apostles’.
Elgarians claim this oratorio is a great work woefully neglected, and with Mark Elder conducting the Hallé orchestra and choir, plus the London Philharmonic Choir, plus a fine soloist line-up, it was going to get the best possible advocacy. But with its lack of drama, its high-flown Edwardian religiosity, and its tastefully mellifluous efficiency, the earth still didn’t move for me, satisfying though the work-out may have been for the performers.
But there were things to savour in the performance. Soprano Rebecca Evans extracted Verdian grandeur from her parts as the Angel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin, while mezzo Alice Coote brought a noble sound to Mary Magdalen, and Jacques Imbrailo’s Jesus was so gloriously sung that at his moments in the spotlight - but only his - I almost turned into a believer. Meanwhile Elder’s control was so finely calibrated that the transitions between fortissimo choral shouts and delicate instrumental solos felt entirely natural.
What a contrast the following night, as Thierry Fischer took the Huddersfield Choral Society plus the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales through Berlioz’s ‘Grande messe des morts’. The Elgar may have been a more polished performance, but the Berlioz was fierily dramatic from first note to last, with the music literally enacting the libretto’s great events. The Day of Judgment was pure brass-and-percussion magnificence as twelve timpani were brought into play, and the choral effects were earth-shaking. The emotions in Berlioz’s world are painfully raw and real, with humanity facing its destiny with a mixture of fear, guilt, and longing; when the chorus sings ‘Call me from the deep abyss’, that is exactly what the bass trombones do.
This works’ visionary climax has a lone tenor singing the Sanctus accompanied by hushed women’s voices, strings, and solo flute, and Toby Spence had been enlisted to sing it. His middle register was ravishing, but he had trouble both above and below it: this sternly high-lying aria had come a bit too soon after his throat surgery, and, as with his mic’d performance in Prom 36, he should have made a gentler comeback.