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Proms: A testing time for the apostles of Elgar

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.