Anybody who loves the orchestral music of English composer Edward Elgar -- the brilliant Enigma Variations, the passionate Violin Concerto, the heartrending Cello Concerto, the magnificent symphonies, the spectacular overtures, and the virtuosic Bach and Handel transcriptions -- will sooner or later have to deal with his three sacred oratorios: "The Dream of Gerontius," "The Apostles," and "The Kingdom." Written for the Birmingham Festivals of 1900, 1903, and 1906, the works are, depending on taste, either Elgar's best and most characteristic works or his bombastic and most sentimental works.
The answer, of course, is that they're both. Profoundly religious but not especially spiritual, Elgar's music is wholly sincere but essentially superficial. His skill as an orchestrator is as marvelous here as it is in his purely orchestral works, and his writing for vocal soloists and chorus is as wonderful as his writing for instrumental soloists with orchestra. And yet the intensely nostalgic tone of the music and the fundamentally traditionalist setting of the texts makes these works less vital, less passionate, less strongly imagined, and ultimately less essentially "Elgar" than his orchestral music.
But anybody who does decide to deal with "The Dream of Gerontius," "The Apostles," and "The Kingdom" will inevitably be drawn to the performances of Adrian Boult with either the London Philharmonic or the New Philharmonia recorded in the late '60s and early '70s for EMI. There are for two reasons for this. First, Boult's deeply noble interpretation of "The Dream" is inarguably one of the two greatest ever recorded, rivaled only by the dramatically expressive Barbirolli recording. Second, Boult's earnestly honorable interpretations of "The Apostles" and "The Kingdom" are far more successful in representing the work's religiosity than Richard Hickox faintly sanctimonious interpretations on Chandos. This six-disc set collects all three of Boult's recordings of the sacred oratorios and couples them with his heartfelt performance of Elgar's secular oratorio "The Music Makers" plus his "Illustrated Introduction" to "The Apostles" and "The Kingdom," as well as Philip Ledger and the New Philharmonia's festive recording of Elgar's celebratory "Coronation Ode" -- remember "Land of Hope and Glory?" -- and anybody who loves Elgar will sooner or later have to listen to all of it. How many times is up to them. EMI's stereo sound is rich, detailed, and evocative.