The Apostles, Sherborne Abbey Festival

Edward-ElgarSherborne Festival Chorus
Chamelion Arts Orchestra, leader Simon Baggs
Naomi Harvey (soprano), Janet Shell (Mezzo Soprano), Joseph Cornwell (Tenor), Peter Savidge (Baritone), Craig Bissex (Baritone), Jeremy Birchall (Bass)
Conductor, Paul Ellis

ELGAR’S oratorio The Apostles had its genesis as early as the composer’s schooldays, when a teacher put the idea into the future composer’s head that ‘the Apostles were young men and very poor. Perhaps, before the descent of the Holy Ghost, they were no cleverer than some of you here.’ Elgar later wrote that ‘my wish was to look at things more from the poor man’s (fisherfolk etc.) point of view than from our more fully informed standing place.’ Despite frequent performances during Elgar’s lifetime, in more recent times The Apostles has been unjustly eclipsed by the the popularity of the better-known The Dream of Gerontius. And to be fair, it is not as immediately accessible as that work. Structurally, it cuts from scene to scene, juxtaposing rather than having a clear narrative through line. But the rewards of engagement with Elgar’s argument are huge: he downplays piety and mysticism and foregrounds the struggles of flawed and conflicted humans such as Judas, Mary Magdalene and St. Peter, achieving a dramatic immediacy which oratorio as a form does not always achieve.

A recent award-winning recording of The Apostles conducted by Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé Orchestra and Chorus uses about three hundred performers, one hundred in a greatly augmented orchestra and two hundred more in a huge chorus. At Sherborne, the work was performed with perhaps a third of these forces. But this was never a scaled-down, ‘chamber’ Apostles. The orchestral sound in the opening Prologue was rich, smooth and sonorous, reminding the listener of the swelling sounds of the composer’s Sea Pictures and symphonies. We could also hear evidence that Elgar was a devout Wagnerian who had recently visited Bayreuth. The pedal bass notes of the organ at times provided a very solid foundation to the sound. When the orchestra were joined by the enthusiastic but disciplined chorus, crammed into the chancel, the sound scape was satisfyingly complete. Throughout, the climaxes of this richly-woven and imaginatively orchestrated score had real force under the unobtrusive but secure control of Paul Ellis.

An hugely experienced team of six soloists had been assembled. All impressed, but perhaps Peter Savidge’s warm but strong and authoritative baritone in the role of Jesus impressed most of all. A sequence in the second part focusses on Judas, sung by Jeremy Birchall. In Elgar’s characterisation he is a hubristic intellectual who wants to force Jesus into demonstrating his divinity by performing a miracle, rather than simply sinner motivated by greed. The boldness and originality of Elgar’s vision is breathtaking: who else would place the crucifixion in the background of the tragedy of Judas?

The most poignant sight (as opposed to sound) of the evening was possibly Jesus and Judas sitting silently on opposite sides of the nave as all the other performers united in the final consoling chorus proclaiming the Ascension. Congratulations and heartfelt thanks to all concerned in this moving and thought-provoking performance.

Paul Jordan

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