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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) 
The Starlight Express Op. 78 [86:03]*
Act I [20:29] Act II [37:30] Act III [28:47] (Premiere recording in this version)
Suite from The Starlight Express (arr. Sir Andrew Davis) [44:57]‡
Clive CAREY (1883-1968)
Three Songs from The Starlight Express (orch. Davis) [6:03]† (I The Organ-grinder's Song [3:07] II The Dustman's Song. [1:39] III The Gardener's Song [1:17]  
Simon Callow (narrator)*; Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) (Laugher/Jane Anne)*‡; Roderick Williams baritone (Organ-Grinder/Gardener)
*†‡; Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Andrew Davis
rec. 28-31 May 2012, Usher Hall, Edinburgh (musical numbers) and 3 August 2012, Studio 80a, BBC Broadcasting House (spoken narrative) SACD
Text and notes included
CHANDOS CHSA 5111 [58:03+80:05]

Experience Classicsonline



Elgar was always ready to return (in thought) to the world of his childhood and never more so than in the winter of 1915-1916. The war had profoundly depressed him - he had never had any illusions about a quick victory. When it was suggested that he write incidental music for an escapist fantasy he did not need much convincing. Little did he know that this effort would grow to become one his longest and most personal scores. 

Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was a well-known writer of both fantasy and ghost stories. Before the war he had written a novel entitled A Prisoner in Fairyland, a work of more seriousness than the title might suggest. In 1914 the writer Violet Pearn had dramatized the novel under the title The Starlight Express, leaving out much of what we might call the “Blackwood” elements. The dramatization was not produced, but in 1915 Ms. Pearn tried again, enlisting the combined assistance of Blackwood and Elgar. The two men hit it off and evolved a joint vision of what the dramatized version should be like, although they were to be disappointed. At first Elgar planned merely to adapt some of his Wand of Youth pieces, but as he became more interested in the project he began writing new music as well. The score evolved into a large sale monodrama in which the old and new themes are developed in a symphonic way.
 
While the official designation for The Starlight Express is “incidental music” the score is over 300 pages long. It accompanies most of the spoken dialogue of the play, as well as incorporating orchestral interludes and free-standing songs for various characters sung by a soprano and a baritone. The songs have been described as in “Elgar’s best light style”, but the effect of the music in its entirety is both child-like and serious at the same time, not unlike in several of the composer’s other works.
 
As indicated above Blackburn’s novel can be described as a children’s fantasy with a serious side. Unfortunately some of the more adult aspects of the novel were lost in Violet Pearn’s dramatization, a fact that distressed Elgar as much as Blackwood. The drama involves an English family living in Switzerland in which both the father and mother have strayed from their youthful selves (“wumbled” in the language of the story) as opposed to their three children, full of imagination and concern for others. As dramatized, each act of the play is preceded by a song for baritone from The Organ Grinder, one of the fantastic characters who appear in the play. These songs point out the main theme of each act. The first song “To the Children” lets us know that the three children will indeed be the focus of the action (track 1). The first scene contrasts them not only with their ‘wumbled’ parents in some poignant music (track 8) but with their equally at sea adult neighbors. In scene 2 warm-hearted music introduces us to the children’s’ Uncle Henry, the only “unwumbled” adult in sight, if not the only one in Europe at the time. He tells them of his childhood dreams of an alternate world of fairies and sprites including the Organ Grinder and The Laugher.
 
The second act opens with the song “The Blue-Eyed Fairy” (track 17) prefiguring the fantastic world where most of the act will take place. Henry and the children fall asleep during a jaunt in the woods and their spirit selves emerge to some of the loveliest music in the score (tracks 18-19). They are joined by the Laugher (sung by soprano), the Organ-Grinder, the Gardener, the Dustman, and a variety of other sprites from Uncle Henry’s fairy world. The spirits arrive on a comet in the form of a railroad train - the Starlight Express. This sequence is accompanied by music that combines fantasy and mystery as only Elgar could create (track 30). Following the complete Sun Dance from The Wand of Youth as interlude, scene 2 shows the sprites, Uncle Henry, and the children working their magic on the assorted adults from Act 1 (tracks 37-43). This music includes the wonderful song “O stars Shine Brightly”) and the act ends with the evenly lovelier “Dawn Song” (track 45), perhaps the highpoint of the score.
 
The Act 3 Organ-Grinder song “My Old Tunes” affirms the power of empathy to make the world better. Elgar brilliantly increases the dramatic intensity as the adults see the world with new eyes (tracks 2 and 3 of CD2) and the sprites join the humans (tracks 7-9). The poignant final song (track 10) suggests that the whole world needs to be “unwumbled”, but Elgar’s coda is more bittersweet than triumphant (track 11).
 
It is easy to see how this story would appeal to Elgar. While the music of The Starlight Express is some of the composer’s most personal, the fact that it was written to accompany spoken dialogue renders the score hard to follow if one is not watching or reading the play itself. Sir Andrew Davis has found one solution to this problem by creating a part for narrator taken from the texts of both A Prisoner in Fairyland and The Starlight Express. This provides a structure for the music, making the story easy to follow, but inevitably focuses attention on the narration more than the music. The alternative is to record the music as written and have the listener follow a synopsis. This is what Vernon Handley did in his complete recording of 1976 (re-released on CD in 1990). For those interested only in the score’s free-standing songs and interludes Sir Andrew has also extracted these as a separate item for this set and they are helpfully keyed to the complete text in the booklet.
 
In addition to both the complete incidental music and the suite, this set includes music for the first, aborted, production of The Starlight Express. This was written by Clive Carey, composer, actor, singer, director, folk-song collector and singing teacher (he coached Joan Sutherland). Sir Andrew has resurrected three of the songs Carey wrote for that first production and orchestrated them for the same ensemble as Elgar’s. The first song, for the Organ-Grinder, is simpler than its Elgarian counterpart, but quite touching. Carey’s second song, for the character of the Dustman, is rather forward-looking, as is the Gardener’s Song. All three are sufficiently interesting to make one wish to hear more of Carey’s music.
 
Whatever the merits of having a narrator for The Starlight Express there can be no doubt that Simon Callow was an excellent choice for the task. His ability to bring out both the varied elements of the story, not to mention his well-known enthusiasm, put over the dated text and its various characters. Elin Manahan Thomas has the right kind of bright, airy, voice for her role of the Laugher and sings with great naturalness. The same cannot be said for Roderick Williams, whose Elgar (and other) performances I have always admired. He is in good voice here but his delivery of the Organ-Grinder’s songs is much too stagy and misses the composer’s intentions. Elgar scored The Starlight Express for a large theatre orchestra and this provides an interesting contrast to his music for full or string orchestra. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra takes full advantage of this opportunity, playing with both subtlety and conviction. The instrumental solos in Act II are especially well performed. Davis obviously has great affection for this score. He conducts in a less symphonic manner than does Vernon Handley, even in the suite, but with equal attention to detail and equal enthusiasm for the music.
 
In terms of recording, the singers and narrator sound quite lifelike, being well-served by Chandos’ 24-bit recording and SACD. However, even with these, the Usher Hall renders the orchestral sound a little distant, negating some of the beauties of the orchestral texture. Sir Andrew wrote the notes for these discs himself and they are very informative both about Algernon Blackwood and about the play’s war-time run, as well as his researches into the play and his reasons for constructing the part for narrator. Unfortunately, he does not say enough about the actual story of the play (see Jerrold Northrop Moore’s excellent descriptions elsewhere). One should also mention that text and discs are contained in an attractive box with individual sleeves for each disc.
 
Although excerpts from the Starlight music have been recorded by a number of conductors including Elgar himself the only comparison for the complete music is the Vernon Handley recording mentioned above. The Davis recording benefits from up to date recording although Handley’s, old as it is, is a slightly more animated rendering but as this is currently available only in a 30-CD set [see link] Sir Andrew’s version is the one to get.
 
William Kreindler 

See also review by Paul Corfield Godfrey

 

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