Gardner and the RSNO give an incandescent performance of Elgar's 'lesser' oratorio - review 

Blazing commitment: conductor Edward Gardner
Blazing commitment: conductor Edward Gardner  Credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Even fervent Elgarians can get a bit sniffy about The Apostles, the oratorio saddled with the reputation of being pallidly inferior to its more popular predecessor The Dream of Gerontius. “Too much incense in the harmony,” my music master indelibly sneered, and other notable authorities have merely patted its ambitions on the back: typically, Stephen Johnson’s programme note for this Edinburgh International Festival concert rather grudgingly allows that it contains “plenty of good music” – thereby implying that it also contains plenty that isn’t.

Pish! And Edward Gardner – fast establishing himself as the successor to his mentor Mark Elder as the outstanding Elgar conductor of his generation – is clearly having none of it either. His blazing commitment to this incandescent performance was enough to convince anyone that, far from being an over-blown splurge of Edwardian religiosity, The Apostles was forged in the white heat of a master’s mature genius.

Best described as a Passion, it expansively follows Jesus’ ministry, persecution, death and resurrection from the perspective of those who followed him (“the poor man’s view”, Elgar explained) – not only the eponymous 12 but also the people of Israel and Mary Magdalene, whose remorse obviously relates her to Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal. Wagner’s influence is also evident in the palpitating leitmotif that recurrently suggests Jesus’ summons and culminates in a climax of dazzling radiance that hits one squarely in the spiritual solar plexus.

There are sounds of serene beauty in the exquisitely refined prologue too, and the vividly conveyed psychodrama of Judas’ betrayal left me doubly regretting that Elgar never grasped the operatic nettle. Whatever The Apostles may lack of Gerontius’ narrative thrust, it makes up in rich variety of atmosphere and pace.

Never allowing the densely chromatic harmonies to sag into slush, Gardner drew noble, urgent playing from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – its strings silken, its brass heroic. He was blessed with an unbeatable set of soloists: Allan Clayton lucid and plangent as the narrating Evangelist, John Relyea the tormented Judas, Jacques Imbrailo a gentle Jesus, Marcus Farnsworth the stalwart Peter, Sophie Bevan a seraphic Gabriel and Karen Cargill the warmly penitent Magdalene.

Trained by Christopher Bell, a rejuvenated Edinburgh Festival Chorus, ably supported by the National Girls’ Choir and Royal Conservatoire Voices, raised the roof and sent tears coursing down the cheeks of at least one member of the audience. A sublime, unforgettable occasion.