ELGAR: The Apostles. The Light of Life (Meditation).

ELGAR: The ApostlesThe Light of Life (Meditation). Adrian Boult conducting; Sheila Armstrong, soprano (Blessed Virgin, Angel); Helen Watts, contralto (Mary Magdalene); Robert Tear, tenor (St. John); Benjamin Luxon, bass (St. Peter); Clifford Grant, bass (Judas); John Carol Case, bass (Jesus); Choir of Downe House School, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI CLASSICS–CMS 7 64206 2 [ADD]; two discs: 70:40, 57:13. Produced by Christopher Bishop.

Elgar’s religious oratorios seem to be a specialized taste. Reviewing the Chandos recording of The Apostles in Fanfare 14:4 (pp. 207-5), my erudite colleague David Johnson notes that British writers “have treated Elgar’s oratorios with such inflated praise that a smoke screen of reverence has been raised,” making it “impossible [for me] to admit to myself that many of [them] (including The Dream of Gerontius) are profoundly wearisome.” I cite these comments because I know that Johnson’s feelings are shared by others, although they baffle me. I can only attribute them to a distaste for the pious treatment of the subject matter, to a general antipathy with late-romantic rhetoric, or perhaps to other extramusical concerns. For example, Johnson tempers his harsh judgment with a comment that conveys some sociopolitical overtones: “After all this griping, I do admit that there is a good deal of beautiful music in The Apostles, even though it is sickly’d o’er with Victorian religiosity and inflated by British Empire grandiosity.” As for myself, I had not been aware of a “smoke screen of reverence” concerning these works at the time I first encountered them and embraced them with the same fervor that seems to have consumed the British writers to whom Johnson refers — and I am neither British, Christian, nor a patient listener with a tolerance for long-windedness. Yet when I first read the extravagantly laudatory commentaries of noted Elgar authority Michael Kennedy and others, I felt that they confirmed, articulated, and elaborated my own initial reactions.

Of course, many readers will already be familiar with Elgar’s oratorios and will have their own opinions. Others may wish to explore these works, which show the combined influences of both Parsifal and Brahms’ German Requiem, shaped according to the Wagnerian system ofleitmotifs, but tinged with Elgar’s own distinctive elegiac nobility. The Apostles was composed in 1902-3, a couple of years after Gerontius and a couple of years before The Kingdom, which had originally been intended as part of The Apostles. Elgar himself compiled the text, which deals with the establishment of a group of followers around Jesus. The composer’s stated aim was to emphasize the Apostles’ human qualities. Michael Kennedy considers the work a considerable advance in the composer’s development. Those familiar with Elgar’s orchestral works will find none of the swashbuckling urbanity that informs such secular music. This is music that consistently reaches for the sublime, unfolding with a leisurely solemnity that, admittedly, could tax the patience of the unsympathetic listener. The choral writing is gorgeous, the orchestration richly woven, the vocal lines smooth and natural.  In his extensive, penetrating, and highly informative program notes, Kennedy describes The Apostles as “music which time and again overwhelms the listener with its transcendental qualities of compassion, insight, and radiance.” Yes, I imagine that this is just the sort of comment that disturbs David Johnson, but I find it right on target.

This CD reissue returns to the catalog a recording originally released on LP during the early 1970s. Its competition is the Chandos recording, released in 1990. That one featured a group of fine vocal soloists with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Richard Hickox. Both are excellent performances, but I would say that Hickox/Chandos has the advantage of a more vivid recording, which contributes to better clarity of diction and of choral counterpoint, of which there is a great deal. Also, despite some slower tempos, Hickox/Chandos impresses as a tighter, more solid performance overall. The vocal soloists are equivalently fine in both performances, making a preference difficult on that count. Especially impressive of the Chandos soloists is bass Robert Lloyd as Judas, but Clifford Grant on EMI has such soulful character that even here a choice is difficult. And then, Boult/EMI has two distinct advantages: one is the inclusion of a brief but lovely excerpt from Elgar’s 1896 oratorio, The Light of Life, which shares some thematic material with The Apostles. The other is the program booklet, with Michael Kennedy’s historical/critical/analytical essay of almost 20 pages. If you love this music, you will want this essay, and Keith Elcombe’s four pages for Chandos simply cannot compare.