SO / Hickox, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

We are spared the passion of the Christ in all its agonising detail. For that we have Mel Gibson. Elgar had another agenda; other perspectives. Namely those of The Apostles. The crucifixion, when it comes, is dwelt on only briefly in a duet of mourning by Mary and John. As Elgar himself wrote: "The thing is a sketch. I felt the subject is too awful to be made into a 'scene'."

His use of the word "scene" is interesting. It indicates just how close oratorio comes to opera - or in this case, so near yet so far. The Apostles was to be the first part of a sacred trilogy of oratorios. The Kingdom was later revealed but The Last Judgement never came. Elgar was his own librettist (after Wagner's example, one suspects) using the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha and Longfellow's Divine Tragedy as sources. But he kept a spiritual "distance" from his characters. Only with Judas did he truly create a "character" and the result is one of the few moments in The Apostles where the text really leaps off the page.

This is problematic for the work as a whole and certainly one reason it is so rarely performed. There are others: its length and scale (six soloists) and the complexity of its choral writing. Some of it is cruelly exposed and left even the excellent LSO Chorus wanting on occasions. The best thing about The Apostles is its aura. The spirit moves in a mysterious way through the opening pages. Elgar's beautiful leitmotifs do carry a reverence, an ecclesiastical gravitas all of their own. And the orchestration is ravishing, strange and exotic in its heady evocations of the Middle-Eastern night and sunrise in Part One - offstage oboes (simple but other-worldly) sweetly underscoring the nocturnal vigil and the brazen shofar (the Hebrew trumpet) signalling the awakening. Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra did them proud.

But does it really hold an audience fast to its lofty purpose? Speaking for the agnostics I'd say that the root of the problem - in dramatic and "operatic" terms - is that the text is largely set in a discursive recitative style which (at this length) is heavy-going for all but the converted. Perhaps the austerity, the directness of the "message" was important to Elgar but I miss the richer arioso style of The Kingdom.

On that point, John Mark Ainsley's John seemed to belong too much to the churchy, "evangelist" school of singing while Alastair Miles, at the other extreme, was not quite at his commanding best - support and intonation failing him in crucial moments. I didn't feel his shadowy presence in Part One, while his big set-piece came and went without customary impact. Roderick Williams's Peter was grabby on this occasion but James Rutherford's vocal benevolence was thoroughly in tune with Elgar's writing for Jesus.

The two Mary's were outstanding. Alice Coote, characteristically intense and engaged, made much of the tortuous human dilemmas symbolised by the figure of Mary Magdalene and Claire Rutter used the full reach and plangency of her lyric/dramatic soprano to convey the Blessed Virgin's heartache, crowning Elgar's stupendous climax of affirmation between heaven and earth in suitably Brünnhilde-ish fashion. Would that there were more of that opulent, pre-Raphaelite brilliance and splendour earlier in the piece.