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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Caractacus, Op 35 (1898) [96:17]
Elizabeth Llewellyn, soprano (Eigen),
Elgan Llŷr Thomas, tenor (Orbin),
Roland Wood, baritone (Caractacus),
Christopher Purves, bass (Arch-Druid, A Bard)
Alastair Miles, bass (Claudius)
Huddersfield Choral Society
Orchestra of Opera North/Martyn Brabbins, conductor
rec April 2018 at Huddersfield Town Hall, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK
Full text included
HYPERION CDA68254 [58:05 + 38:12]

There are now three recordings of Caractacus, Elgar’s locally inspired scenic cantata. Charles Groves recorded the first for EMI with the RLPO in the late 1970s (nla), while two decades later Richard Hickox led a team of soloists (which included the rich toned bass Alastair Miles who here reprises his turn as the Emperor Claudius) and LSO forces for Chandos (CHAN 241-58 - review). New accounts of the work then seem to emerge every twenty years or so, as if to provide successive generations with a timely reminder that it directly preceded the Enigma Variations in Elgar’s canon. As his Op 36 is generally judged to be his breakthrough work (and remains Elgar’s masterpiece for many), one is not surprised to find that Caractacus does indeed contain some fine music, some of which (notably in the final section) seems to presage the Variations. But there is also a good deal that is stolid and workaday, alas. The Processional March that opens Scene 6 deservedly has the ‘hit number’ status, and it is played and sung with terrific vigour here, but frankly its arrival came as a relief to this listener, as I found much of the first hour to be rather heavy going, just as I did with the Hickox set. Notwithstanding Martyn Brabbins’ best efforts at shaping the work into something convincing, and some magnificent choral work from the Huddersfield Choral Society, Caractacus plods along, rather than races by.

The fault certainly doesn’t lie with the performers. Doubtless Elgar was touched by the local Malvern mythology, but much of his vocal output is fatally undermined by dodgy texts, and H.A. Acworth’s libretto, lovingly reproduced in full in the booklet, is undiluted doggerel from first word to last. Some critics aver that Caractacus was as close to opera as Elgar ever got; it does, after all describe ‘action’ of sorts, and incorporate ‘characters’ (laughably under-developed and one dimensional, admittedly) but the very fact that it occupies that uneasy hinterland between oratorio, opera and cantata also gravitates against the chances of the work being seen as anything other than an odd curio of Empire.

The critic E.A. Baughan was a staunch supporter of Elgar and attended both the full orchestral rehearsal of Caractacus in London as well as its 1898 premiere at the Leeds Festival. (He rather uncharitably referred to Leeds as “…this ugly, dirty and ill –lit city…” in his review). But even Baughan was tentative in his enthusiasm for the work, and some of the language of his notice is amusingly pejorative; so Caractacus is “clever” and “modern”, and Baughan bigs up the qualities of Elgar’s “workmanship”. That word in particular is telling; anyone who can set a text as McGonagallesque as Acworth’s must indeed possess word-setting abilities in abundance, but it is the cumbersome and overwrought language itself that ultimately inhibits a measured appreciation of the work.

My colleagues John Quinn and Paul Corfield Godfrey have already produced erudite and detailed critiques of Caractacus in general and this excellent Hyperion recording in particular. So I will restrict myself to comparisons between this set and its immediate competitor on Chandos. In terms of the title role, David Wilson-Johnson’s command of the unwieldy text was always one of the selling-points of the Hickox account- if one can bring themselves to put the libretto down (not easy) and just focus on his authoritative, characterful singing the words themselves really don’t seem to present much of an obstacle at all; on the new issue there can be no doubt as to the amplitude and quality of Roland Wood’s voice but to my ears there is a degree of self-consciousness in his projection of the singular language that is absent in Wilson-Johnson’s reading – this is borne out by a direct comparison of the accounts of ‘Watchmen, alert!’ in the first scene and the lament ‘O my warriors’ in the fourth. On the other hand Wood’s is the more overtly theatrical performance, and this may well better suit some listeners’ tastes than it did mine. As far as the other soloists are concerned, there really is little to choose. Elizabeth Llewellyn’s naturally crystalline soprano makes for a captivating Eigen, indeed her love duet in the third scene with the tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Orbin) is a highlight, although the same could be said of a rather youthful sounding Judith Howarth with Arthur Davies on the Chandos set. Christopher Purves typically invests the Arch-Druid with as much personality as the part allows (he doubles up in the cameo role of A Bard). The passing of two decades has perhaps invested Alastair Miles’ Claudius (basically another cameo) with a tad more humanity (or is it world-weariness?).

I have to say the Huddersfield Choral Society are quite magnificent on the new issue. Contemporary critics rightly raved about the London Symphony Chorus on the Chandos discs but the Yorkshire choir seem earthier and less studio-bound than their illustrious predecessors, an approach which somehow humanises a work which can often seem lofty and over-worthy. The Orchestra of Opera North are responsive accompanists and give the LSO a run for their money. If the trademark Chandos spaciousness is still impressive after twenty-odd years, the Hyperion sound is terrific too – similarly detailed, but arguably more spontaneous and exciting. Martyn Brabbins is cut from the same cloth of his much-missed colleague Richard Hickox and makes a noble, cogent case for a flawed, problematic work.

Given that 120 years have elapsed since its premiere, a new recording of this flag-waving, empire-celebrating curiosity may well be a cause for celebration for many Elgarians. In the context of the current domestic socio-political zeitgeist alas, I’m afraid this reviewer can’t help feeling somewhat a bit uneasy about it all.

Richard Hanlon

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Paul Corfield Godfrey

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