I have performed this piece as a member of the chorus in King's College Chapel and witnessed a superb performance at the Proms. I have also listened to this particular performance many times. This work is far less well known than "Gerontius" but for me (as for Boult) this is the greater work. I suspect that it is less performed than it should be because of the need for six first-class soloists. At every point, I find this strange and haunting work absolutely inspired. Perhaps the dramatic temperature cools towards the end of the first part, but this is necessary for the gradual building of tension through the extraordinary meditation of Judas (certainly the "hero" of this work) to the stunning apotheosis in the Transfiguration of Christ. Which is almost impossible to sing (or even to listen to!) because of the shattering emotional impact of the final pages. The comparable passage that comes to mind is the final pages of Gotterdammerung and you have to sit through 14 hours of music to get there! The recording now shows it's age a little but is still very fine. Sir Adrian has the measure of this complex work and his cast, orchestra and chorus are all superb. Perhaps the "round vowels" of John Carol Case's Jesus now sound a little peculiar, but he sings beautifully and the remaining soloists are all exceptionally good. In particular, the work stands or falls with Judas and here Clifford Grant gives a tragic performance that never feels "acted" in any sense. (Robert Lloyd's performance for Hickox, although still very fine, feels just that: a performance). The sincerity and beauty of Elgar's music and of Grant's singing makes me weep every time I hear it. If you love Elgar's music this is (as he said of "Gerontius") the "best of me" and the closest that he came to an operatic masterpiece. Unreservedly recommended.
When reviewing a musical recording, it is or should be an elementary rule for us reviewers to keep entirely separate what we think of the performance from what we think of the music. If only it were always that simple. Here we have a performance of a major work by Elgar directed by his acknowledged leading exponent, and I find I can't give the result the full 5 stars not because of shortcomings in the performance as one would ordinarily understand that, but because the performance has not done enough to satisfy me in terms of rectifying what I perceive as shortcomings in the work itself.
What's an `oratorio'? 17 works by Handel seem to me to qualify for the name. The most famous is obviously Messiah, but it is unlike most of the others in having no narrative component. All the way from Haydn's Creation to Walton's Belshazzar's Feast the narrative element is nearly universal. Haydn's great masterpiece can be mentioned in the same breath as Handel's in which respect I would call it entirely alone among `true' oratorios, but the narrative element is nearly nonexistent; and the most successful oratorio after that in my own opinion is Franck's Beatitudes in which it is entirely nonexistent with no `nearly'.
Keep the narrative thread and unless you are Handel you will get into trouble, seems to be the truth of the matter. Schumann's lovely Paradise and the Peri is very successful, but its `theology' is dubious to say the least and I will not badge it as oratorio. Mendelssohn let himself down with his (in my view) simply contemptible oratorio-mongering. Elgar tried a new approach, but again I have problems with it. I had formed the view independently that Gerontius is not an oratorio but that The Apostles and The Kingdom are, and I am delighted to find that this opinion has the heavyweight support of Mr Michael Kennedy in the liner accompanying this set. I probably concur also with Boult's view that the two later works are superior as music to Gerontius. I suspect however that Boult would not support my own thinking that they create problems for themselves precisely because of their oratorio status.
An oratorio is setting the words of holy scripture, whether directly or as paraphrased by some librettist. It is not necessary to be any kind of religious believer to feel that this can be done inappropriately, and as an unbeliever myself I don't much approve of Elgar's way of doing it. The purely narrative scriptural texts can be set as recitative, and Bach did that and Handel did that. Where, however, we are confronted with prophetic pronouncements that have driven the consciousness of much of the human race for two thousand years I can't see that they can be adequately set to music as if they were operatic dialogue. Nor do I greatly care to hear the words of Christ himself set as if they were just anyone's. Once on board this train of thought I was predictably becoming more and more fault-finding. However I can't help that. When even so great a composer as Elgar invades the territory of the very greatest at their greatest and I recall enviously such musical utterances as He trusted in God from Messiah or Erbarme dich from the St Matthew Passion I want the performers to do something to ease my discomfort.
There was far more fire to Boult's musical temperament than his caricatured image as an English gentleman with bowler hat and rolled umbrella would suggest. He is a genuinely great conductor as far as I am concerned, and of course he had completely unequalled authority so far as Elgar went. He treats the whole score with the utmost sensitivity but also, I feel, with a tad too much respect. The prevalent andante tempo does not help either, and my overall impression was that the impact is far too devotional. No doubt this was what the composer asked for, but all the same I could not help wondering how Rattle (who has done a very interesting and not entirely orthodox Gerontius) might have gone about it. It would not have to be an English conductor either. If Boult had a successor in the next generation it was Previn in my own opinion; and I would not have minded hearing Bernstein as another option.
What Boult can really rise to when the composer raises his own game is something you can hear in the final section, which easily stands comparison with the end of Mahler's 8th symphony. The singers are a very distinguished lot. It would be invidious to pick out particular artists, so let me just be invidious in that case and say what a joy it always is to hear the trumpet tenor tones of Tear in his prime. The Christus of John Carol Case is also outstanding, the contralto of Helen Watts is entirely guiltless of hooting, and the choice of Clifford Grant for Judas is downright inspired. Over and above all this there is a brilliant 5-minute filler, the prelude from Elgar's early oratorio (or whatever) The Light of Life. The liner note cannot on this occasion be faulted for being overly brief or summary, indeed if anything it gets a bit wearisome after the first 20 or so pages, largely telling us what we can hear for ourselves anyway.
To summarise, if there is any suspicion of dullness here, I myself am inclined to attribute that to the composer. For all that, Elgar is a very great composer, and if you do not see fit to share my particular reservations it could well be that yours is the better view of the issue.
Elgar's The Apostles, recorded by the LPO and LPC under Sir Adrian Boult is still one of the greatest. It's been years since I listened to it (it's on LP on a high shelf in my living room) so it was great to hear it once more on the CD - a fantastic performance.
This is my preferred version of Elgar's superb composition. All the soloists are excellent, and the choir and orchestra perform well under Boult's fine direction. Despite his age, he is, to me, the finest exponent of Elgar's choral works.
I do listen to much Choral Classical Music but had not heard "The Apostles" before. I heard Music by Elgar at a conference organised by Norwich Diocese on Friday 16th November 2012. The Actual Piece used at the conference was "The Kingdom" by Elgar. Listening to "The Apostles" at home in advance had prepared me well. I found both pieces by Elgar extremely enjoyable and uplifting. I would grade "The Apostles" as "Excellent". Thank you, Amazon, where I recently purchased "The Apostles" Regards, Norman.