Festival Music


Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

WITH luxury casting of the solo roles at the front of the stage, including Scots mezzo Karen Cargill as Mary Magdalene, conductor Edward Gardner also had an RSNO featuring 60 string players, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, nine male singers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and, in the Upper Circle, the angelic voices of the NYCoS National Girls Choir to realise Edward Elgar's vast cantata The Apostles. The composer also requires the hall's organ, a stage centre shofar horn, associated with the call to worship, and an early offstage visit by the oboes and cor anglais in a score that incorporates everything from huge brass swells to a plaintive solo viola.

The cumulative effect of all of this is some of the most moving music the composer wrote. The final (seventh) section, The Ascension, and its depiction of Heaven itself, is truly glorious and unlikely to be heard more beautifully performed than here, in what was a real Festival occasion. But if there could be no complaints about the singing and playing, it was also not difficult to understand why the work is not often done. If Elgar's treatment of the story of the New Testament is not strictly heretical, it is idiosyncratic, and his libretto has none of the skill and scholarship that Charles Jennens brought to Handel's Messiah, for example, as passages of Biblical text, like the Beatitudes, are interwoven with the expanded role for Mary Magdalene and an opportunity for Judas (John Relyea) to repent and return his bribe.

So although this event was musical sumptuous and theatrical in its huge forces, it is as drama that The Apostles fails – and that is no-one's fault by Elgar's.