Monday, June 2, 2014

Happy Birthday to Edward Elgar

Sir Edward Elgar was born on June 2, 1857. Last year a recording of his oratorio The Apostles by Sir Mark Elder and the Halle Orchestra with soloists and choruses won the best recording of the year award from BBC Classical Music Magazine.

You can, however, listen to the entire work conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, another great Elgar conductor here. While listening to it, you could follow this BBC3 synopsis of the story, as Jesus calls the Twelve Apostles, teaches them, forgives Mary Magdalen, calls Peter the Rock on which He builds His Church--all in Part One. Then in Part Two, the drama of the oratorio is Judas' betrayal, his remorse, Peter's denial--and of course, the Crucifixion. The Apostles concludes, after the Resurrection scenes at the Empty Tomb, with the Ascension, and a great chorus of rejoicing. Elgar continued the story in The Kingdom and planned a third work, The Last Judgement.

Gramaphone reviewed a 1988 re-release of the Boult recording:

Boult's conducting of The Apostles has not quite the fervour of his interpretation of The Kingdom (reviewed in May), nor is the recording always as full of 'presence', but it is wonderful to have the work on CD, although owners of the original LPs will want to retain them because of the sixth side on which Sir Adrian gave an analysis of both oratorios. The faults and failings of the music have often been pointed out, and it would be idle to pretend that there are not some troughs in the level of inspiration. But, my word, the peaks! They are tremendous and deeply moving. It is in the meditative sections, where Elgar's stately sorrow flows like a river of tears, that Boult is at his most impressive and inspires the LPO and Choir to some incandescent playing and singing. His treatment of "Turn you to the stronghold" as if it were a prayer is a piece of masterly insight, and the women's choir's singing after Peter has denied Jesus is truly exquisite.

The six soloists are a well-matched team, with Sheila Armstrong in radiant voice. John Carol Case a devout but mercifully unsanctimonious Jesus and Clifford Grant a baleful, black-voiced Judas (though his intonation is sometimes suspect). The orchestral score points the way to the symphonies and Falstaff, and Boult ensures that no detail is lost within the overall picture.

As the BBC3 programme notes for The Apostles recount, Elgar obviously featured Judas, his betrayal and remorse-though not his suicide--because his actions are dramatic. Elgar was also influenced by some particular ideas about Judas' motives:

But Elgar had been fascinated by some remarks in a book by Archbishop Whately of Dublin. Judas, Whately had said, was a thinker, a man a cut above the others, perhaps with even a touch of the aristocrat. His intention in betraying Jesus was not to bring about his death, but to force his hand – to compel him to show his power by saving himself, so that the Jews (and perhaps the Romans, too) would have had to acknowledge him as King. Judas’s despair and agonising guilt when he realises that his plot has failed, and that Jesus has been brutally executed, is central to the drama of The Apostles. It drew some particularly fine music from Elgar, especially Judas’s confession of guilt before the indifferent priests in the Temple (choral psalm-singing in the background only emphasising his aloneness), or again at the very end of the ‘Betrayal’ section, where a rapid crescendo is suddenly cut off, leaving the chorus to comment quietly, almost unemotionally: ‘He shall bring upon them their own iniquity.’

On my first listening to the Boult recording, I agree with the BBC commentator that The Apostles suffers in comparison with The Dream of Gerontius, but that The Apostles "is full of good music".

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