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Music review: The Apostles, sung by the choir of Merton College, Oxford

13 July 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears Elgar’s biblical oratorio that was originally to be the first of three


IT SEEMS extraordinary that Elgar’s oratorio The Apostles, after initial success, should have languished almost unperformed until it received belated due recognition in the late 1960s.

Part of a planned trilogy, embracing The Kingdom, though the composer regrettably abandoned its culmination, The Day of Judgment, its qualities are unquestionable. Inspired by Elgar’s visit to Wagner’s Parsifal, it embraces some dozen recurring Leitmotifs: the “Gospel motif”, most importantly “The Spirit of the Lord”, or the “Forgiveness” motif relating to Mary Magdalene. But you can hear the spirit, the harmonies, and the chromatic subtlety of Wagner’s religious last opera throughout, just as they surface in the prelude to Gerontius.

This gala performance at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford by the choir of Merton College, Oxford, to celebrate its tenth anniversary, could scarcely have been bettered. Directed by Ben Nicholas, who has transformed this ensemble into a match for any Oxford or Cambridge choir, Elgar’s The Apostles focuses on two prime characters: Mary Magdalene and latterly, Judas Iscariot, of whom the former was especially movingly sung by the mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez.

The success of this performance rested with wise conducting. Nicholas’s research into the score and phenomenal insight into it produced a magnificently eloquent and intelligent reading that was indeed a personal triumph. Perhaps outstanding, above all, was his pacing of the work. Often boldly drawn out, it included the magical ends of some movements — the way Elgar orchestrally snuffs out Judas is quite unnerving and unforgiving — plus scrupulously managed shifts of speed, vivid accelerandi, and the flair of the faster sections, all responded to by a well-drilled chorus, who put not a foot wrong.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was on scintillating form, with engaging solo clarinet, paired harps, thunderous trombones and tuba, haunting cor anglais, and a perfected team of French horns, plus the astonishing ritual calls of the Jewish shofar (Ram’s horn), plus all of the RPO strings (including some stylishly gloomy double basses), all enhancing the multi-coloured work with their captivating distinctive hues.

The value of this oratorio lies not least in the inspired choice of texts, on which Elgar was abetted by the Revd Edward Capel Cure, initially a curate in Worcester. Not only does the apt selection of biblical verses unfold the New Testament narrative with astonishing alacrity, but interspersed is a poetic element that one might term pastoral. Thus Mary Magdalene in her desolation can intone “I am as when they have gathered the summer fruits as the grape-gleanings of the vintage. . . Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they become withered”; and so on.

One intriguing detail is that, earlier on, Judas (Julian Empett) joins in supportively with the other disciples (Peter and John). Thus latterly we see him abandon this state of grace before our very eyes (“for the breath of our nostrils is as smoke, . . . our body shall be turned into ashes, and our spirit shall vanish in the soft air”). John, the tenor (David Butt Phillip), also provided a tender and articulate narrator.

Peter’s fearful denials were poignantly depicted by Marcus Farnsworth. Conversely when Christ declares: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” the promise of future leadership was immensely moving. The soprano, Sophie Bevan, gave us a resplendent, proclamatory Angel Gabriel, before taking up Mary.

Jesus is given nobility, profound sympathy, and a magnificent, even terrifying authority. The bass Ashley Riches, endowed with an astoundingly rich low tessitura, brought these authoritative qualities wonderfully to the fore, not least in the section in which Christ rather grandly intones the Beatitudes. This, above all, was the performance to savour.

But the choir, celebrating its anniversary in amazingly fine style, deserves the last word. These mostly young singers, above all the sopranos and altos, were inspired throughout. They brought passion, fervour and many different hues to their crucial chorus contributions.

Their opening passage, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”, their glorious outburst at “They shall be named the Priests of the Lord”, and the wonderful mystic chorus that concludes, all shone gloriously. It is clear why Merton under Nicholas has so quickly entered the big league. Tuneful, delicate, articulate, and attentive, their passionate performance of this mighty oratorio could in no way have been bettered.

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