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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op 30 (1896) [94:55]
The Banner of Saint George, Op. 33 (1897) [27:15]
Emily Birsan (soprano); Barry Banks (tenor); Alan Opie (baritone)
Bergen Philharmonic Choir; Choir of Collegiūm Mūsicūm; Edvard Grieg Kor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. June 2014, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
English texts included
CHANDOS CHSA5149(2) SACD [53:18 + 59:07]

Nowadays, if you want to hear or record rare works by Elgar then Sir Andrew Davis is your man. He’s already recorded for Chandos a splendid account of the complete incidental music for The Starlight Express (review) and also a well-regarded set of The Crown of India, which I have not heard (review). Nor has his advocacy been restricted to the recording studios: I heard him lead a very fine performance of Caractacus at the 2011 Three Choirs Festival (review). So he’s certainly got the credentials to make this new recording of King Olaf. The cantata has been recorded once before, a very fine EMI version from 1985 led by another dedicated Elgarian, Vernon Handley. I don’t believe that recording is still available separately. It last surfaced, as far as I know, in a big EMI box, Edward Elgar – The Collector’s Edition. (review). Incidentally, that same box also included the only other version of The Banner of Saint George: the Richard Hickox account from 1986.

In fact, though it’s the ‘filler’ in this set I’ll deal with The Banner of Saint George first. As we read in Andrew Neill’s admirable booklet notes the cantata, along with what was to become the Imperial March, was commissioned by Novello’s in 1896 for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria the following year. Elgar set words by a poet named Shapcott Wensley (1854-1917). I’m unclear if the words were written specifically for Elgar’s use, nor do I know if Wensley was Elgar’s own choice as a librettist but the results are truly dire. No doubt the words fitted the spirit of the times, but not only are they toe-curlingly embarrassing today; more seriously, I don’t think that they lend themselves at all to musical setting.

The text tells the story of the crusader knight, St George, who appears from nowhere to rescue Sabra, the daughter of the King of Sylenė. She is destined to be the latest of the city’s maidens to be sacrificed to the dragon which has been menacing the city. Brave St George arrives, rescues Sabra and slays the dragon. Cue much rejoicing amid which the noble knight departs, as he says, to do more valiant deeds until he is martyred. The piece ends with a martial hymn, ‘It comes from the misty ages’ which salutes “the banner of England’s might”. Elgar saddled himself – or was saddled – with a dreadful libretto but I think he made things worse for himself by setting most of the text for chorus. It says in the score that some lines, which set the words of Sabra, can be sung by either a solo soprano or by unison sopranos but Davis – and Hickox too – eschews a soloist. The Bergen sopranos sing nicely but an opportunity for a little contrast has been lost. Indeed, if Elgar had written some parts of the piece for solo voices that would have imparted extra interest.

The other failing – and it’s one that we shall see repeated in King Olaf – is that at this stage in his career Elgar wasn’t very good at setting narrative passages for chorus and there’s quite a lot of narrative in The Banner of Saint George. Andrew Neill states that in this score Elgar “managed to compose music that rises above his material: he created a work of atmosphere, momentum, vocal and instrumental colour, and, as it turns out, lasting charm.” I bow to his substantial experience of Elgar’s music but I can only really agree with him that the score has some momentum and instrumental colour. Listening to the two works on these discs I would have assumed, had I not known, that The Banner of Saint George is the earlier work. Though it too has shortcomings King Olaf seems to me to contain far more assured choral material and infinitely more interesting and enterprising orchestral writing. Indeed, The Banner of Saint George almost seems like a musical regression from King Olaf. Davis and his Norwegian forces give a lusty account of it but I am unpersuaded. I took part in a performance of this piece over twenty years ago – when, incidentally, a solo soprano was used; I didn’t think much of it then and despite the committed advocacy of this performance my opinion hasn’t changed.

King Olaf is a much more substantial piece than The Banner of Saint George, as can be seen from the timings for the two works – and Vernon Handley’s recording is even longer, running for 108:44. It too has its weaknesses but it is still a much superior composition. It arose from a commission for the 1896 North Staffordshire Triennial Musical Festival and the man behind the commission was the conductor, Charles Swinnerton Heap (1847-1900). Heap was a choral conductor of no little distinction and was very sympathetic to Elgar’s music. It should have been Heap’s task to prepare the chorus for the first performance of Gerontius but his sudden death just as rehearsals were about to start prevented him from carrying out that assignment. Had he lived the premičre would almost certainly have been far more secure.

Elgar selected a text by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), whose verses were very popular in Victorian England – and admired by Elgar. The Longfellow work in question was Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863) which, rather in the manner of The Canterbury Tales, was a collection of stories in verse supposedly told by travellers gathered at an inn. The story chosen by Elgar was the saga of the Norse hero, Olaf Tryggvasson (c950-1000). Longfellow’s verses required shortening and adaptation and for help in this respect Elgar turned to his Malvern neighbour, H. A. Ackworth, who was later to fashion the libretto for Caractacus (1898).

The libretto that resulted includes a number of episodes from the life of Olaf . He brings Christianity to his native Norway, subduing and killing his rival Ironbeard, who refused to accept the new faith, after which the people are converted to Christianity. Olaf then marries Ironbeard’s daughter, Gudrun but she is set on avenging her father and tries to assassinate Olaf on their wedding night. We’re not told what then happens to Gudrun but she’s clearly removed from the picture because Olaf subsequently tries to marry Sigrid (a second role for the soprano soloist) but he’s out of luck with her too: she flees and marries King Svend of Denmark. Perhaps hoping it will be a case of third time lucky he then woos Thyri, the former wife of King Burislaf of Wendland and she seeks his help in recovering land from Burislaf. That request leads to Olaf’s undoing for his attempt to do Thyri’s bidding results in his death in battle.

Such a scenario suggests many opportunities for colourful music and that’s what we get. Elgar employs a large orchestra and uses it to often striking effect. The opportunities for martial music – and orchestration – are seized with relish but just as impressive, if not more so, are the more delicately scored passages. There is also a good deal of very convincing choral writing. One episode that’s particularly noteworthy is Elgar’s mature handling of the scene in which, after the death of Ironbeard, the people accept Christianity. For much of this passage the tone of the music is restrained and thoughtful and it’s all the better for it. The choir also has the best-known number in the score, ‘As torrents in summer’, which forms part of the impressive Epilogue.

Not all the music for chorus is as good as that, and as I suggested when discussing The Banner of Saint George I think Elgar had problems in writing narration for a chorus. Thus, in the banquet scene, ‘The Wraith of Odin’ the chorus tells the story but I don’t find their music particularly interesting; in my listening notes I wrote that the chorus music in this passage was “of its time”. It must be said, however, that the orchestral writing in this passage is very interesting and skilful. Also unsuccessful is the choral ballad ‘A Little Bird in the Air’. Here the choir tells the story of Thyri leaving King Burislaf and finding solace with Olaf. This is a serious story – and one with grave potential consequences – but the triple-time music strikes me as too light in tone and even a bit twee; it harks back to some of Elgar’s early part songs. It’s simply an unconvincing setting of this part of the story.

I think the other trouble for Elgar – and this extends to some of the solo writing also – is that the words weren’t sufficiently inspiring to bring out the best in him. The scene that tells of Sigrid (number 11 in the score) starts with a triple-time passage for women’s voices in three or four parts. Technically the writing is very proficient but the music only takes us so far. I found myself thinking of some other passages for women’s voices in Elgar’s choral works – the Angelicals music in Gerontius or the passage in Apostles after Peter’s denial of Christ (‘And the Lord turned and looked upon Peter…’) In those cases, admittedly written by a more experienced and confident composer, the words clearly fired Elgar’s creativity in a way that Longfellow/Ackworth couldn’t.

It’s necessary to mention the weaknesses in the work in order to give a balanced picture of it but, as I hope I’ve indicated already, there are many compensating passages of considerable invention and enterprise. Movement 14, the scene between Thyri and Olaf, is very successful. It starts with some excellent writing for the soprano, in which the quality of the music transcends the words; and in this passage also the very active orchestral parts are full of interest. When Olaf sings his music, which is initially gentle, is very effective and when later the two characters join in duet the writing is assured and ardent. As I mentioned earlier, the Epilogue, that follows the death of Olaf, is impressive and quite moving.

A work like this, which has weak passages, stands or falls by the conviction of the performance and, happily, that’s not in doubt. Alan Opie has the depth of vocal tone and the histrionic power to bring off well his various short passages or narration and the more substantial role of Ironbeard. On the Handley recording Brian Rayner Cook is also very impressive and because he sings with a less pronounced vibrato I rather prefer the sound of his voice. That said, Opie undeniably has presence. Emily Birsan is a singer whose voice I’ve not heard before. She’s had experience with Chicago Lyric Opera, where Sir Andrew Davis is Music Director and that may explain her involvement in this project. I enjoyed her contribution very much indeed. The sound of her voice is very pleasing and she sings with great clarity and involvement. On balance I prefer her to the fuller, richer tone of Teresa Cahill, who sings for Handley. The last time I heard Barry Banks was on the live recording by Sir Colin Davis of the Berlioz Requiem (review). I thought his forthright style was completely unsuited to that piece but here he’s more effective. The heroic style of much of Olaf’s music suits him and I was pleased to find that in the gentler episode at the start of the duet with Thyri he sings with genuine sensitivity. However, Philip Langridge does an even better overall job for Handley; he’s much more imaginative in his approach to the music.

The combined Norwegian choirs sing very well indeed in both works – I do wonder quite what they made of The Banner of Saint George. No one need have any concerns that a non-Anglophone chorus has been used; the English is immaculate. The Bergen Philharmonic plays with verve and distinction. What a nice idea it was to have a Norwegian choir and orchestra performing English music about a Norse hero. Sir Andrew Davis conducts The Banner of Saint George with gusto, which is the best way to approach it. To the much more varied and demanding King Olaf he brings a mixture of relish, dramatic flair and sensitivity. He’s just the man for these assignments.

The Chandos SACD sound is full-blooded and excellent in every respect. I noticed with interest that for this project Ralph Couzens was assisted by Gunner Herleif Nilsen of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation; between them they’ve produced very fine results. The notes by Andrew Neill are comprehensive and full of interest.

King Olaf has its flaws but it has many strengths too. It’s a key step in Elgar’s journey to Gerontius and all Elgar enthusiasts will want to hear it, especially in this splendid new recording. The excellent Handley performance is by no means superseded but even if you have it in your collection you must hear this new recording also.

John Quinn


Another review ...

If I am honest, I am not an Elgar enthusiast. Do no get me wrong: I enjoy his music, and regard many of his works as masterpieces. My life would be much the poorer if I could not listen to the Violin Concerto, the Second Symphony and the sun-drenched Overture: In the South. Perhaps I ought to have said that I am not an Elgar ‘groupie’. By this I mean that there are huge tracts of the composer’s music that I do not particularly enjoy or appreciate. This includes (heresy to many, no doubt) the great oratorios, Gerontius, The Kingdom and The Apostles. I do recognise these works as great music: it is just that they do not ‘do’ for me. I have to admit that the same goes for the two important works presented on this CD. My initial thought is that ‘King Olaf’ outstays his welcome and The Banner of St George is a period piece that, in spite some gorgeous melodies, is very much a ‘child of its time’. Elgarians will no doubt roundly disagree.

The excellent liner-notes by Andrew Neill give the listener all the historical and analytical information that they will require. The texts of both works are also included with scores freely available on the Internet. However a few brief notes about each work may be of some interest.

The cantata Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, op.30 is a long work, lasting for more than eighty minutes, making it almost ‘operatic’ in length. The work is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) which was made into a libretto consisting of a prologue, nine scenes and a concluding epilogue. The work was completed in 1896 and was first performed in the Victoria Hall, Hanley during that year’s North Staffordshire Music Festival. The basic ‘plot’ of the cantata is the life, wars, loves and death of the great King Olaf, who was a Norse warrior turned Christian. In a rather politically incorrect manner, he used his sword to make converts to his new-found faith.

The various sections include ‘The Challenge of Thor’, ‘King Olaf’s Return’, ‘The Conversion’, ‘Gudrun’, ‘The Wrath of Odin’, ‘Sigrid’, ‘Thyri’, ‘The Death of Olaf’ and the epilogue. The whole proceedings are written from the point of view of the skalds or poets recalling the history at second-hand – a kind of Longfellow-ian version of the Canterbury Tales.

Even the Elgar Society’s own webpages note that the work has been criticised for the ‘banality of its lyrics and storyline’. Yet the story is full of fascinating Norse mythology and legend.

I enjoyed listening to King Olaf, in spite of my reservations noted above. The performance is excellent with many beautiful and often deeply moving moments. Elgar has provided an internally consistent score that includes much fine music. My criticism is that it is over-long and sometimes slow-moving. All that said, enthusiasts of this work will find it ideal.

The Banner of St George was composed the following year (1897) which was Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. It is a ‘ballad in two scenes and epilogue for chorus and orchestra’. The text was provided by the Bristolian poet Shapcott Wensley (Henry Shapcott) (1854-1917). The cantata’s premiere was at the St Cuthbert’s Hall Choral Society event in London on 18 May 1897. The story tells simply of the saving of the King of Sylenė’s daughter, Sabra from the wiles of the dragon by St. George of Cappadocia. The concluding epilogue — not written to be particularly complimentary to the valour of the Scots, Welsh or Irish — is a bit of jingoistic bombast: ‘Three crosses in concord blended/ The banner of Britain’s might!/ But the central gem of the ensign fair/ Is the cross of the dauntless knight!’ In spite of the work’s banality, it was warmly received by critics and audiences alike and don’t get me wrong: I can do tub-thumping, sentimentality and vapidity with the best of them … but the bottom line is that it must be a ‘right good sing …’

Both works are stunningly performed. It is good that Andrew Davis has drawn on the excellent Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and that great city’s commanding choral forces to present this story of Norse and Cappadocian derring-do. The soloists Emily Birsan, Barry Banks and Alan Opie take this music seriously and bring an operatic feel to the progress of King Olaf. The singing of the choir is beyond reproach. As mentioned above, the liner-notes are superb.

As far as I understand there is only one other recording of each work in the catalogues, both from EMI. King Olaf was recorded by Vernon Handley with the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra (EX 270553-3) and The Banner of St George was also issued by EMI with Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia of England. (EL 270555-1)

I do not know the former recording, but I do have a soft spot for the latter, which I think has the edge on this new CD. Hickox seems to be able to imbue the work with more drama and intensity – especially in the ‘dragon and arrival of St George scenes’. However, it is churlish to compare these recordings: all three are clearly produced by leading recording companies and performed by world class forces.

Elgar’s cantatas (Olaf, Caractacus, Black Knight) will never be my first choice of music. Having heard the two works on this CD, I cannot fail to be impressed with Elgar's ability to write engaging music for these prosaic texts. Some of the passages in both works are sublime and constitute miniature masterpieces within the entire work. Listeners who like to hunt latent strengths in a composer’s early works will have great scope for their activities in King Olaf in particular.

John France
 



 




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