Proms: A testing time for the apostles of Elgar

BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/BBC SYMPHONY CHORUS ROYAL ALBERT HALL

AMONG ELGARIANS, the oratorio The Apostles is a difficult subject. How does it rate with its successor, The Kingdom? Is it the composer's neglected masterpiece? Largely unknown among the wider public, it received its Proms debut on Sunday evening, 95 years after its premiere. In the continuing story of Elgar's music (what scholars call its "reception history") this may sound a less important event than last month's unveiling of the Third Symphony. In terms of this unsung oratorio, however, it's by no means insignificant.

And anyone who liked the symphony and, out of curiosity, tuned in or turned up to hear The Apostles, will not have been disappointed. The performance, with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Chorus, bore out the contention that this is symphonic Elgar, though whether "more wonderful than Gerontius," as August Jaeger, "Nimrod" of the Enigma Variations, claimed, remains an open question. There's certainly no lack of invention; and whereas Gerontius looks to the Wagnerian mysteries of Parsifal for its common stock, in The Apostles it is Elgar the colourist, the composer of vividly illustrative music, whose voice is commandingly heard. The oratorio, in its grandeur of form, resembles a garland of memorable leitmotifs. Recalled in the flow of exuberant sound, these solid ideas - for the earthly kingdom, or betrayal - surprise and delight the ear, regardless of the words they accompany.

This is just as well, a cynic might argue, for Elgar's text, compiled with a concordance-like wealth of gospel detail, both thrills the dramatic sense (in the Judas scenes, for example, resolutely sung by bass John Tomlinson), yet can also empty the stomach of all but the most devout admirer of the Word. Bathos and poetry are embedded side by side. A case in point occurs in the second part: Elgar's setting of that Sunday-school list of dubious credits, The Beatitudes. Another example concludes the first half: a routine fugato, "Thou art a God of the afflicted," leads to the hushed final bars where the "Turn you to the stronghold" motif, echoed on strings, is sheer magic.

No doubt of this kind assailed the sextet of soloists, who in true oratorio fashion projected out strongly to a well filled Albert Hall. The versatile Thomas Randle was comfortable in his roles as the narrator and John the Apostle. As Peter, bass-baritone Steven Page seemed a little underpowered in ensemble work, yet came into his own in the magnificent denial scene. Anthony Michaels-Moore's Jesus was bold yet subtle, the real man that Elgar wished him to be. Dame Felicity Lott, soprano, robed in shimmering blue, sang the Blessed Mary and the Angel. Mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers sang the other Mary, with conviction portraying a woman undone by rosebuds, wines and ointments.

This part, with its choral "fantasy", is generally thought the oratorio's weakest part. Yet here again, in the midst of some fairly dull music, was beauty: a ravishing cadence phrase, for clarinet and harp - perhaps a dropped stitch from the Overture In the South. Like so much else in The Apostles, it sounds too good to miss. By all means take it or leave it, but first make sure you know what it is you're missing.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz