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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Caractacus, Op. 35
Eigen – Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Orbin – Elgan Llŷr Thomas (tenor), Caractacus – Roland Wood (baritone), Arch-Druid/A Bard – Christopher Purves (bass), Claudius – Alastair Miles (bass)
Huddersfield Choral Society, Orchestra of Opera North / Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2018, Huddersfield Town Hall, UK
English text included
HYPERION CDA68254 [2 CDs: 96:16]

Although at the very end of his life Elgar did seriously engage with the prospect of writing an opera – and after his death Percy Young did manage to cobble together a substantial score in the shape of the comic The Spanish Lady – the nearest he came when at the height of his career to writing a music-drama were his two dramatic cantatas King Olaf and Caractacus. Unfortunately, as so often with English operas of this period, his efforts in this department were largely torpedoed by libretti of outstanding awfulness; in this case the culprit was a retired Indian Civil Servant who rejoiced in the name of Henry Arbuthnot Acworth, had already translated and published a number of Indian ballads and additionally had the advantage of being a fairly close neighbour of the composer. Whereas in King Olaf the librettist had been able to adapt sections of his text from poems by Longfellow, in Caractacus he was left entirely to his own devices and contrived to produce many lines of astounding banality as well as others of toe-curlingly jingoistic ‘patriotism’. Elgar, who had plentiful experience of setting trashy poems to music in his solo songs, simply disregarded the worst of the doggerel jogtrot of the verse and managed to produce many scenes of dramatic power. There again, even he had to admit defeat in the ‘love duet’ which follows the Woodland Interlude, which is one of the few excerpts from the score which has managed to maintain its place in concert programmes over the years.

Indeed, there have only ever been two previous complete recordings of Caractacus, both studio recordings, made in 1976 by Sir Charles Groves and 1992 by Richard Hickox for EMI and Chandos respectively. Even before the pioneering Groves recording there had been a transcription of a live performance conducted by Brian Wright which I believe may at one time have surfaced on LP (and I did at one time have a tape of a BBC broadcast), but unless a copy surfaces from the Itter archive on Lyrita I do not suppose it is likely to see the light of day again, and although in some ways it had the best casting of all it suffered from congested sound and the hazards of live performance. Even the Groves recording seems now to have succumbed to the deletions axe, although it did appear on a 1998 CD reissue of which second-hand copies are still readily obtainable.

The annoying thing is that of the three recordings now available of Caractacus, all have their various strengths and weaknesses and that none of them is totally satisfactory as a representation of a score whose challenges can often defeat the most well-meaning of interpreters. The title role demands a full-scale Wagnerian heroic baritone who can vault up to high G at several points, and can also scale down his voice to a delicate lyricism. On the Groves set, the Verdian baritone Peter Glossop, despite some unsteadiness, comes closest to meeting these requirements; for Hickox, David Wilson-Johnson is wirier of tone. Here Roland Wood, after a distressingly unfocused opening couple of bars, combines the virtues of the other two; but even so the sense of strain is sometimes evident. He can manage the high notes, but at the end of his lament over his fallen warriors he finds it necessary to scoop up to the top G during the beat before – an effect which Elgar does not request and, because it clashes with the underlying harmony at that point, produces a momentarily jarring effect. Earlier in the same scene, his delivery of the line, “Where the war god stern rejoices that his host has been increas’d”, marked by Elgar with a crescendo from pp to f, is hardly dynamically differentiated at all.

Christopher Purves sounds oddly more heroic in the other principal bass role as the villainous and unnamed Arch-Druid, with more character than either the bland-sounding Stephen Roberts (for Hickox) or the grittier Bryan Rayner Cook (for Groves). He also takes on the minor role of the Bard in the beautiful little scene depicting the embarkation of the British captives for Rome, managing Elgar’s optional high F to perfection and phrasing with real warmth; in this he scores comprehensively over Roberts for Hickox, and even more over the miscast Richard Suart for Groves – the future G&S stalwart not only contriving to duck the high note, but also sounding entirely ill at ease throughout this short section. All the sets cast a separate bass as the Emperor Claudius (although it appears that Elgar expected this role also to be doubled) and here Alastair Miles is the equal of his rivals elsewhere even though he is not actually left with much to sing.

The roles of the two young lovers, Caractacus’ daughter Eigen and her lover the Druid seer (and later apostate warrior) Orbin, present even more extreme problems for casting. Both parts bristle with high notes (including a protracted top C for the soprano in the final scene) and yet seem to expect Wagnerian heroics elsewhere – and then at the same time lyric delicacy for the woodland interlude and other such passages. Elizabeth Llewellyn has all the notes for the part of Eigen, but is also disturbingly unsteady on the opening notes of her big solo “O’er arched by leaves” and lacks warmth elsewhere. Sheila Armstrong had similar problems with the role for Groves; Judith Howarth was more satisfactory for Hickox, and best of all, as I recall, was Teresa Cahill for Wright. However, in the Wright set the part of her lover was taken by Richard Lewis, at that stage close to retirement; Robert Tear for Groves was strenuous but more solid, and the best representation on disc was that provided by Arthur Davies for Hickox. In this new set Elgan Llŷr Thomas is suitably mysterious as the Druid scrying the disastrous portents, but then proves totally unable to rise to the heroics as the seer takes on the role of a warrior; the notes are all there, and crisply and cleanly delivered, but the dramatic engagement is seriously lacking.

The real strength of this new set lies in the contribution of the Huddersfield Choral Society, a solidly musical body with the power and engagement to make a real impression at every turn. But they are not always helped by the conducting of Martyn Brabbins, who in places displays a wish to move forward at a speed which dilutes some of the grander passages. Two of Christopher Purves’s great moments – his introduction of the grand ‘Empire’ theme at the words “Go forth, O King, to conquer” (marked by Elgar “molto grandioso e sostenuto”) and his scene with the embarking prisoners – are spoiled by Brabbins’ brisk approach which in both cases is considerably faster than Elgar’s stately metronome marking. The acceleration from the latter scene into the Triumphal March is not as smooth as it might be (perhaps the juxtaposition of different takes) but Brabbins can certainly conjure up excitement when it is required.

However, the fast speeds have a further disadvantage. The acoustic of Huddersfield Town Hall has a pretty substantial reverberation, as can be heard by the overhang of echo at the end of loud sections, and this serves to muddy the textures during the Triumphal March and elsewhere; we hear the glitter of the glockenspiel during the Roman ceremonials, for example, but its actual notes are absorbed into the overall texture. In other places the resonance of the stentorian brass masks the string tone, and during the opening scene the violins sound very backwardly recorded in places. Hickox’s Chandos set also suffered from an over-reverberant acoustic, and oddly enough it is the oldest recording of all – that of Groves – which enables the listener to hear more of Elgar’s often delicate scoring than any other.

Caractacus is not a long work, and both the other sets provide substantial fill-ups on the second disc. In the case of Groves this is no less a work than the Enigma Variations, although I imagine that any Elgarians buying the set will already have multiple performances of this piece. Hickox, given the Severn setting of the opening scenes, more appropriately provides the orchestral version of the Severn Suite. Under the circumstances, purchasers may well decide that the Hyperion set provides rather short measure, allhough the two discs are being marketed for the price of one. The booklet provides the complete text (in English only), a useful programme note by Andrew Neill, and complete artist biographies. I have to say that the cover illustration struck me initially as extremely ugly, and I was not surprised to read that it was a reproduction of a sculpture by Sir Thomas Lawrence depicting Satan summoning his Legions. The Roman conquerors, if they had ever thought about it in those terms, might have equated the resistance fighter Caractacus with Satan, but I hardly think we need to follow their example; and there must have been better works of art from the Victorian era which could have served for the purpose.

Recordings of Caractacus are not so thick on the ground that we can afford to spurn any new offering, and Elgarians will doubtless welcome the opportunity to encounter another interpretation of a work which deserves rather better attention than it has often received in the past. We can now, I hope, treat Acworth’s text with the general disdain it deserves, and concentrate on the frequently marvellous music it inspired in Elgar. At the same time, for those coming new to the cantata, the best representation on disc must remain that by Groves on EMI (if second-hand copies can be located), both in terms of general casting and – more importantly – a recording which reveals rather than conceals Elgar’s increasing orchestral mastery at this stage in his career.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: John Quinn

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