Elgar - The Apostles
BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Stephen Cleobury
Chapel of KIng's College, Cambridge, 7 April 2012

10 / 04 / 2012


Apostles in Cambridge? Not the secret society of university intellectuals, the past berth of spies Blunt and Burgess? No, this was Elgar's The Apostles, the oratorio, and the last big splash of the Easter festival at King's. College members participating appeared to be just two: Stephen Cleobury, director of music, who conducted smoothly, and Parker Ramsay, the organ scholar, who was responsible for the gentle rumblings inside many of Elgar's textures.

But there was a third participant that must be counted: King's College Chapel. Every time the Philharmonia Chorus and Duke Voices sang 'Alleluia' we looked at the fan vaulting and saw alleluias in stone. The chapel's lofty and golden acoustic loomed larger still, cradling each note in the building's echo. We heard the best of the acoustic during Elgar's big climaxes, spendidly burnished with choral ecstasy, the BBC Concert Orchestra's brazen brass, and the timpanist's dark tatoo. The worst emerged in the turning of individual words to mush, and the soloists' struggles to project actross the 500-year resonance of a sacred space.

None of their voices got up close and personal, noe even David Wilson-Johnson's Judas, an apostle and singer guaranteed to supply any oratorio with drama. Yet even if we listened through the wrong end of a telescope, we certainly registered everyone's commitment. Though Elgar responds more imaginatively to the 'bad' characters than the 'good', I enjoyed the mellifluous beatitudes of Roderick Williams's Jesus and Ailish Tynan's bright pipings as the Blessed Virgin, Susan Bickley's eloquently recounted Mary Magdalene's past sins. Within the acoustic's holy fuzz there was expressive singing, too, from Timothy Robinson and Mark Stone as the apostles John and Peter.

The orchestra sounded unusually luscious. Here were velvet strings, warm crimson brass, sweet pleading winds. Here, too, was scholarly detail. News that Cleobury would be faithfully following Elgar's original instructions about where the choir stands or sits left me unmoved. But he did well to insist on a shofar, the Jewish ram's horn, so eloquently blown by Bill Houghton to usher in the dawn. Fuzz acknowledged, this was still a memorable performance.

Geoff Brown
The Times, 10 April 2012

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