Sir Edward ELGAR (1857‒1934)
Caractacus, Op. 35 [101:29]
Severn Suite for Brass Band, Op. 87 ‒ orch. Elgar [18:02]
Judith Howarth (soprano), Arthur Davies (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone), Stephen Roberts (baritone), Alastair Miles (bass)
London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. October 1992, All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London
CHANDOS CHAN241‒58 [61:27 + 58:24]

Here’s another fine Richard Hickox re-issue from Chandos, again from the early 1990s. This time it is Elgar’s dramatic cantata Caractacus written for the Leeds Festival, and first performed there in 1898. Caractacus (‘Caradog’ in Welsh legend) was a chieftain who led the British resistance to Roman invaders in the first century AD. He was eventually defeated in a battle, possibly in the Malvern Hills, or at Caer Caradoc in Shropshire. He was captured and taken to Rome; but such was his eloquence before the Roman Emperor Claudius, he was released (who says there’s no place for Latin in the curriculum?). According to Welsh legend, he then returned to Britain, where he began the process of converting his compatriots to Christianity.

There’s enough there for a meaty libretto; perhaps unwisely, Elgar turned to his friend and neighbour Harry Arbuthnot Acworth, an ex-colonial gentleman, who provided him with a text of, let’s say, mixed quality. The plot centres on the disastrous defeat of Caractacus’ army by the Romans, and, despite the text’s shortcomings, Elgar supplied some magnificent passages of music, which undoubtedly invite comparison with the later, greater oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. This latter, however, set wonderful words by John Henry Newman, which, unlike those of Caractacus, didn’t tempt the composer into excesses of patriotic fervour. Though, to be fair, that criticism can only really be applied to the final pages of Caractacus.

So, a flawed work, but emphatically worth hearing, especially when done as superbly well as this. Hickox draws top class playing from the LSO, while I have rarely heard the LSC on better form, producing magnificent tone in all vocal parts. A fine cast of soloists was assembled as well; David Wilson-Johnson does a splendid job in the role of the eponymous chieftain, though some may find his voice a little light for this part, and his vibrato somewhat tremulous too. But his interpretation is convincing, as is that of the other male singers, who include Arthur Davies as Orbin, lover (husband?) of Caractacus’ daughter Eigen, and Stephen Roberts as the Arch-Druid. In fact Roberts, despite the brevity of his part, gets some of the finest music in the work; ‘For the banded tribes of Britain’ in Scene 2 is Elgar at his grandiloquent best – spine-tingling.

The one female role is Eigen, and Judith Howarth brings a limpid lyricism to her music that is delightful. Scene 3 contains the Woodland Interlude – of which Elgar wrote to Jaeger “…the trees are singing my music; or have I sung theirs?” – and Howarth’s pianissimo entry with “O’er-arched by leaves” is stunning, while in the passage that flows from this she finds a simply glorious high B. She and Arthur Davies, in the same scene, make something very lovely out of the love-duet of Eigen and Orbin, which in other hands and voices can seem hopelessly verbose and over-long. Wilson-Johnson’s best music comes in his post-battle solo, set in the then unusual time of 5/4, where Elgar faced the challenge of writing music of elegiac heroism, and succeeded brilliantly.

And so to the final scene, and to Rome, where Elgar greets us with the full ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ works. The Imperial March that opens the scene must be one of the first of Elgar’s great marches, and the LSO goes to town, with some splendiferous brass playing. This is a spectacular number, especially when the chorus joins the fray, and it understandably made a huge impact in early performances. Elgar then introduces the last of his soloists for the Emperor Claudius, (who turns out to be a relative of King Mark by the sound of the bass clarinet), resonantly personified by Alastair Miles, despite some slightly dodgy intonation. The ensuing scene between him and Caractacus is frankly somewhat tedious, but does culminate in a rather lovely (and mercifully short) trio for the three captive Britons, the chieftain himself plus Eigen and Orbin. After that, all that remains is for the chorus and orchestra to wrap the piece up by means of a final chorus, with its rather empty stuff about “ever your dominion/From age to age shall grow”, “no slave shall be subject”, and “folk shall bless the banner”, you know the sort of thing.

So, yes, a mixed bag of a piece; but what is not mixed is my admiration for the superb work of all the performers. The recording, too, is an object lesson in how to create a sound-stage, with its perfect balance between the three crucial elements of soloists, chorus and orchestra. And overseeing it all was Richard Hickox, as ever doing a magnificent job of steering the forces through the many changing movements and moods of this fascinating work.

The ‘filler’ by the way, is a comparative rarity, the attractive Severn Suite of 1930. Originally composed for brass band, we get it here in the composer’s own orchestral arrangement of the following year. Elgar dedicated this work to his friend George Bernard Shaw, who said, as explained in Michael Kennedy’s note, that this would ensure his immortality when all his plays were forgotten. Such modesty!

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Another review ...

I must confess it’s a while since I last heard Elgar’s Caractacus, and coming to it fresh has reminded me forcibly of some of its more salient aspects. For one thing, I had forgotten the strength of the local connection between the site of Caractacus’s last battle and Elgar himself. The conflict took place on the Herefordshire Beacon in the Malvern Hills, deep in Elgar country, and it seems he was first inspired to write a work on Caractacus by a chance comment his mother made in 1897 about the Beacon being “full of so much historical interest”. The work, then, was clearly not just a commission (for the Leeds Festival of 1898), but also a labour of love. Less happily, re-hearing Caractacus also reminds one straightaway of just how bad its libretto is. The first words I noted down during my listening were “clumsy”, “awkward” and “mawkish”, brickbats which could never be aimed at Elgar’s music, but which are not unjust when applied to the work of the retired Malvern civil servant and amateur versifier Harry Arbuthnot Acworth. It’s not altogether easy to enjoy patriotic late-Victorian verbosity these days even if it’s well crafted; but Acworth’s, sadly, isn’t.

As to Elgar’s music, what I had forgotten most of all was just how gentle, indeed pastoral much of it is. Sure, Caractacus has plenty of big, ‘nobilmente’ moments, is written for large forces, and arguably comes closer to the world of grand opera than anything else Elgar wrote. Nevertheless much of it has, to quote the late Michael Kennedy’s booklet note, “lyrical charm and fancy, with passages in mock-folksong, ballad, and madrigalian styles”. It is somehow fitting that the only two excerpts that are at all well known today should be the stirring ‘Triumphal March’ and the contrastingly delicate ‘Woodland Interlude’.

The work as a whole is by no means perfect: there is, I think, something in the commonly held view that its first half is better than its second; Acworth’s introduction of some spurious love interest involving the bard Orbin and Caractacus’s daughter Eigen doesn’t really come off either dramatically or musically; and several of the tunes don’t turn out to be quite as memorable as you at first think they might. The oratorio is also – thanks mainly to Acworth – rather too long for its material (the actual battle, after all, happens entirely ‘offstage’ between CDs). That said, there is so much here that is really fine, including the consistently masterly scoring for both voices and orchestra, that Caractacus ultimately come across as a highly distinguished product of Elgar’s early maturity. No open-minded listener is likely to find it hard to believe that, before two years had elapsed, Elgar had also completed the Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius.
In his review of this set, Rob Barnett tells us that Richard Hickox’s recording, here reissued, was “the work’s first commercial digital recording”. And, as far as I can tell, it remains the only one, joined in the lists only by a 1977 analogue recording by Liverpool forces under Sir Charles Groves. Fortunately, Hickox’s performance is consistently excellent. He clearly has the measure of the work and of Elgarian inflection and rubato more generally, and is in full command of his well-disciplined choir and orchestra. It can’t be easy to convey nobility and gravitas when you have to sing words like: “I have driven, I have driven / O’er the ridges steep of war / Like a King my thundr’ing car. / Thro’ the cloven ranks of battle / Rome has heard my wheelblades rattle”; but somehow David Wilson-Johnson manages it. His Caractacus is as eloquent and impressive as the character must seem if the Roman Emperor’s eventual pardoning of him is to be plausibly motivated. It was also a great pleasure to encounter again the virile and ardent tenor of Arthur Davies, in my view an underrated Gerontius, and here making the bard and lover Orbin into a more fleshed-out character than he appears to be on the page. No doubt Elgar had in mind a darker and deeper voice than the one which Stephen Roberts brings to the role of the Arch-Druid, but Roberts is both sensitive and authoritative; and a young Alastair Miles applies his trademark dark velvet voice to the small but important role of the clement Emperor Claudius. The recording copes admirably with what sounds like it might have been, in the hands of lesser engineers, a problematically reverberant church acoustic. There is an English text but no translations ‒ a shame, given not least that this is one of the rare instances where no decent translator would have found it difficult to improve on the original.

Hickox’s coupling continues the set’s Worcestershire theme. At 18 minutes, the Severn Suite is not a particularly generous filler – Groves has the Enigma Variations and the Imperial and Coronation Marches, which must weigh in at nearly 20 minutes of extra music overall. It is, though, a lovely and welcome one, offering as it does a rare synthesis of early and late Elgar. The Suite’s origins lie in a commission to the 73-year-old composer to write a test piece to celebrate the 25th anniversary (in 1930) of the National Brass Band Championship at Crystal Palace. Its material, however, like that of the Wand of Youth Suites, dates back largely to sketches made during Elgar’s youth. The original brass band work was dedicated to his near-contemporary George Bernard Shaw; and in 1931‒2 the composer himself orchestrated it, adding at the same time subtitles for each movement which link them to celebrated buildings within the city of Worcester. So the Suite is framed by a pomposo introduction putatively inspired by Worcester Castle, and by a nobilmente coda – which however begins with a brief but very poignant cello solo which fleetingly plunges us back into the nostalgic world of the Cello Concerto. Between these bookends come three movements which use traditional musical forms: a scherzo-like toccata called ‘Tournament’, a beautiful slow fugue entitled ‘Worcester Cathedral’, and a minuet and trio purportedly inspired by the city’s Commandery. Kennedy describes the Severn Suite perfectly when he identifies in it “the music of an old man looking back on days that could never return but which were green and vigorous in his memory” – and applying to his task, one might add, a level of craftsmanship and expertise which can only be hard won by long experience. All in all, then, the Severn Suite is well worth hearing. It might be going a little too far to suggest that it alone is worth the price of a two-disc set; but it is a significant adornment to that set nonetheless.

Nigel Harris

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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