Elgar’s The Apostles, with Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

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The Ascension by Bell & Beckham. Tiles. All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London. Photo John Pankhurst.

The Ascension by Bell & Beckham. Tiles. All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London. Photo John Pankhurst.

Edward Elgar – The Apostles
Carnegie Halle
Friday, May 12, 2017

Leon Botstein, conductor
The Blessed Virgin / The Angel: Jennifer Check, soprano
Mary Magdalene: Sara Murphy, mezzo-soprano
St. John: Paul McNamara, tenor
St. Peter: Joseph Beutel, bass-baritone
Judas: Alfred Walker, bass-baritone
Jesus: Adrian Rosas, bass-baritone

Bard Festival Chorale
James Bagwell, director

For an interview with the David Curtis, Music Director of The Orchestra of the Swan, with a discussion of English music on American concert programs, click here

I was tempted to preface this review of this rarely performed oratorio by Sir Edward Elgar with a harangue about the neglect of British music in this country, but I was pleasantly surprised to look over the upcoming Tanglewood schedule, and to find that British music and Sir Edward will be rather well served this summer. Bramwell Tovey will conduct William Walton’s oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast, on Sunday, July 30th, with the BSO. Stefan Asbury, who is himself an Englishman, but better known for his mastery of living British composers, above all Oliver Knussen, will lead the TMC Orchestra in Elgar’s First Symphony on Monday, July 17th; and Garrick Ohlsson will join the Takács Quartet in a performance of Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A Minor on Wednesday, July 26th. Thomas Adès will also conduct his own music and that of Mark-Anthony Turnage, as well as Britten and Sibelius, a composer long-admired in Britain. One could say that these offerings are not adventurous, but they are basic and substantial. In fact when I introduce the subject of the neglect of British music, I refer to the “English musical Renaissance,” a term often used to set apart the late nineteenth century and twentieth century composers who did in fact raise the quality and interest of English music above the level which has persisted from the death of Handel to the emergence of Stanford and Parry. This group of outstanding composers, dominated first by Elgar and later by Ralph Vaughan Williams were also the first collective presence of first-rate composers since before the Civil War. The period following that was dominated by isolated geniuses, Henry Purcell and the German Handel, apart from the occasional visits and undying popularity and influence of the short-lived Mendelssohn. Following Vaughan Williams, Walton, and Bliss, there was the generation of Tippett and Britten, which should be distinguished from that of the older composers. For some fifteen or twenty years a new generation has come to the forefront, at first pushing aside somewhat the older generations in the limited exposure afforded by conservative American programmers, but now, as we see in the upcoming Tanglewood schedule, embracing their predecessors. For this we have to thank the brilliant artistic partnership the BSO have formed with Thomas Adès, which has been well underway since the autumn of 2016.

This is only the frame of the complex context surrounding the work Leon Botstein conducted on May 12th, Edward Elgar’s oratorio, The Apostles, not performed in the United States since 1906, when Elgar himself conducted it at the Cincinnati Choral Festival (but heard recently in Toronto, under the admirable Stephanie Martin, in its Canadian premiere, preceded—several months earlier—by its pendant, The Kingdom, no less!). As one might expect, The Apostles and The Kingdom are performed at least occasionally in the U.K., although not often together, as they were intended to be, The Kingdom following The Apostles. Like our English cousins, we can be grateful to Dr. Botstein for an opportunity to hear the first half of the diptych in the sort of live performance he rightly considers to be the best way to hear rare music—or any music at all. Elgarians consider it important to hear The Kingdom on the same or following day as The Apostles, much as one might hear the music dramas of Wagner’s Ring in close sequence.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, the music of Brahms and Wagner had finally exorcized Mendelssohn’s ghost and created a sense of the modern among English composers and audiences. At a recent Bard Festival we heard how Ethel Smyth endeavored to set a modern seal on her opera, The Wreckers, by introducing Wagnerian quotations into her score. Elgar faced a similar dilemma, which he managed in a more sophisticated way, after having digested Wagner more deeply. He had visited Bayreuth on several occasions in the 1890s. We hear the fruits of his experience in the “Enigma” Variations (1899) and The Dream of Gerontius (1900), and still—within the discourse and architecture of the symphony, in his two finished efforts in the form, completed in 1908 and 1911. Elgar received a commission from the Birmingham Festival for a major choral work in the wake of Gerontius, and it inspired him to plan a work of the highest ambition. He visited Bayreuth in 1902, with preparation for The Apostles in mind. Following the example of Wagner’s Ring, he conceived a cycle of three oratorios, beginning with an account of Christ’s anointing and teaching of his Apostles, the work we have just heard. This was to be followed by another large-scale work centered on Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. The final work was to point to Last Judgment, the end of Christian eschatology. Elgar only completed the first two. He had a sense that the third might not succeed, and his religious enthusiasm, it is thought, was on the wain. With that in mind, his conclusion of The Kingdom, a choral recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, may have had to satisfy him as a sufficiently lofty conclusion.

This is a good place to remind ourselves that Elgar was a Roman Catholic who grew up with all the disadvantages of his minority status as a Dissenter. He was neither allowed to study at Oxford and Cambridge, nor at the Royal Conservatory, and colleagues like Stanford and Parry despised him for it. The Dream of Gerontius was both Roman, as Cardinal John Henry Newman’s personal confession of Roman belief, and acceptable to general English audiences, for Newman, although a convert, remained an Englishman. Elgar had to conceive his next oratorios in the Anglican vein, and he consulted with Anglican churchmen to make sure his libretto, which he wrote himself, and his musical setting remained within the proper boundaries.

For Gerontius, Elgar already had Newman’s great poem, and he was daunted by the lack of a text for his new oratorio. When he decided to prepare it himself, he dedicated himself to it with the utmost seriousness and hard labor. He took out, or acquired, a copy of Cruden’s time-honored Bible concordance and several English translations of the Bible. He stayed mostly with the King James Version, with occasional dips into the Revised Standard. The libretto he created, entirely by interweaving contextually modified Bible quotations, is powerful, difficult, and original, foreshadowing the methods of Oulipo, still new and experimental today, initiated almost a generation after Elgar’s death. I have been struck by the profound modernity of the “Enigma” Variations and the symphonies, in spite of their late Romantic sound and Elgar’s conservatism. The Apostles and The Kingdom, to my mind, show an even more radical manifestation of his covert modernism. One might say he was unaware of it himself, disguised as it was by an outsider’s ambition.

Elgar’s libretto, composed of phrases and lines from Scripture, is dense and somewhat opaque. One often hears the ring of a familiar passage from the Bible, to proceed immediately into another brief thought, only to pass on to yet another. For a conventional Christian who has followed readings and sermons on Sundays and even studied the Bible a bit, Elgar’s libretti are strange country. Instead of the literal teachings and life of Jesus Christ, we find ourselves within the interaction of Jesus, the Apostles, and Mary Magdalene as an interior experience. It is best read—more than once—in a meditative spirit before hearing either work. It has a meditative feeling, but it is not within the listener, but within the characters, that is, Christ Jesus, the Apostles (above all St. Peter, St. John the Evangelist, and Judas), Mary, and Mary Magdalene. It becomes an intensely emotional—rather than spiritual—drama, as Judas’ scepticism and the Magdalen’s regret (not feelings of guilt) over her past life develop into an agony. The personae of Apostles are intentionally balanced as the narrative proceeds from the Walking on the Waters to the Passion. Elgar’s narrative of the Apostles in the boat and the storm interwoven with the Magdalene’s inner struggle is deeply original in its psychology. Some conventional Anglicans may well have been outraged by it, if they understood it. Perhaps Elgar was shielding himself in his own hermeticism here. His strange and fascinating narrative had its origins, it is said, in something he learned in childhood from a teacher, who stressed that the Apostles were “poor men, young men, at the time of their calling; perhaps before the descent of the Holy Ghost not cleverer than some of you here.”

In composing the music, Elgar followed a Wagnerian leitmotivic method, more literally than in any other of his works. As in Wagner’s Ring, one can follow specific leitmotifs directly associated with particular ideas or characters throughout the score. We also hear many echoes of Parsifal. Elgar never went so far into the realm of Wagnerism as in these oratorios. Brahms only floats through the background as a salutary rigorous ghost. Elgar sets energetically and ably to work in interweaving his brief motifs and extending them into melodic sections, in which he combines in counterpoint  into longer periods.

Leon Botstein followed the flow and pulse of the work as a whole rather than emphasizing the dramatic contrasts between the larger and smaller sections. The Apostles revealed itself as a unified moving organism in the sprit of the Wagnerian music dramas which influenced it composition. Elgar wrote it for a major English choral festival, and he made sure to reflect his drama in the color and texture of a large chorus. The great choral director, James Bagwell, was on hand to cherish these values throughout the performance. The most seasoned of choral enthusiasts from the Midlands or the North would have been delighted with Bagwell’s command of diction, line, texture, dynamics, and color. The old values were alive in his contemporary, edgier version. The soloists all sang at a high level. There was no weak member of the group. Two of them deserve special praise, however: Sara Murphy, who sang Mary Magdalene in a melodically controlled, but deeply emotional manner and Alfred Walker as Judas, using the rich and varied colors of his bass-baritone voice to combine expressive phrasing with eloquent feeling. It was those two sinners who fascinated Elgar the most, and casting, singing, and direction rendered it most eloquently.

Now on to The Kingdom! Even if the day after is long past. These unjustly ignored works are essential to understanding Elgar. Anyone with more than the most casual interest in his music should know them well. An outstanding performance like this one—so enthusiastically received by a large audience—should go a long way in remedying their undeserved obscurity. I can’t think of a more important event at Carnegie this season.

Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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