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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphonic Study in C minor, ‘Falstaff’, Op.68, (narrated version) (1913) [47:03]
Symphonic Study in C minor, ‘Falstaff’, Op.68 (orchestra only version) [35:28]
George Whitefield CHADWICK (1854-1931)
Chadwick’s Introductory Note to Tam O’Shanter [4:32]
Overture: Tam O’Shanter (1914-15) [19:39]
Timothy West (narrator, Falstaff); Samuel West (narrator, Prince Henry); Erik Chapman, (narrator, George Whitefield Chadwick); Billy Wiz (narrator, Robert Burns)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Andrew Constantine
rec. 2018/19, Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff; Henry Wood Hall, London; Wathen Hall, St Paul’s Boys School, Hammersmith, London
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100103 [71:14 + 35:28]

It must be recalled that the Falstaff of this Symphonic Study is not the ‘ridiculous wooer’ of the Merry Wives of Windsor, (whom I love dearly) but the large, grand and sometimes heroic companion of Prince Hal. And the tragedy of the entire work is when Harry, now King Henry V rejects his former companion with the words ‘I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers…’ The mood of the music does not follow a structured plot as such: it is more of a character study, moulded into the shape of a symphony with four movements. It is an extremely complex score with much thematic manipulation and cross-referencing. It is not necessary to rehearse the titles of the movements here, save to say that they encompass some key biographical events in Falstaff’s life. They are not musical representations of these proceedings but are ‘past times remembered.’ Deeper still, is Elgar’s suggestion that ‘Falstaff is the name [of the work] but Shakespeare—the whole of human life—is the theme.’ This is also personal portrait of the composer himself.

The producers of this CD have utilised the Shakespearian actors Timothy West and Samuel West to recount the words of Falstaff and Prince Harry respectively. These texts are drawn from King Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. I think that these narrations between the sections (or movements) add considerably to the value of Elgar’s music and the structure of the work.

Finally, it is quite possible to enjoy this Symphonic Study with no reference to the plot of Henry IV: it can be understood quite simply as a masterly exploration of several musical themes reflecting emotions generated by sadness, joy, laughter, love of life, rejection and personal tragedy.

American composer George Whitefield Chadwick’s wonderfully evocative Tam O’Shanter -symphonic ballad (1914-15) is sadly overlooked in concert halls, at least in the United Kingdom. Which is a pity. Chadwick has created a splendid portrayal of one of Rabbie (Robert) Burns’ best-loved characters. The music does not follow the story in every detail, but near enough for the listener who knows the poem to follow the action. The score depicts the long journey home, the supernatural carryings-on at the Kirk of Alloway, the chase across the wee brig and, with a twist from Burns’ poem, a sober and reflective Tam at the conclusion. The music is always colourful and well-scored with lots of musical onomatopoeia (jangling bones, bagpipe screeches etc.) and a good sprinkling of ‘Scottish’ sounding tunes. In this recording Chadwick’s own ‘programme note’ inserted at the head of the score is spoken by Erik Chapman (composer) and Billy Wiz (Rabbie Burns). Despite knowing Chadwick’s overture, I enjoyed hearing the introduction (I had read it before). It is a great context-setter which lasts for just under five minutes and should be included in every performance.

The liner notes give an excellent introduction to both pieces as well as a robust justification for the inclusion of the spoken parts. There is an interesting essay about the relationship between Chadwick and Elgar – two men ‘divided by a common musical language.’ The playing of both works is outstanding by all concerned and ticks all the boxes for quality of sound and interpretive understanding. There are short biographical statements about the conductor and the four narrators.

The ‘bonus’ with this CD release is the inclusion of a ‘traditional’ presentation of Falstaff. In other words, without the spoken parts. This is the same ‘take’ as used in the main event. I guess that this will appeal to listeners who maybe do not want, or need, to associate Elgar’s music too closely with Shakespeare’s character.

So, the big question – does this work? As an experiment in performance it is extremely effective. I feel that this could be a useful way of presenting these two works to the public. Neither tends to be heard in the concert hall on anything like a regular basis. Falstaff has been given twice at the Proms during the present century: Chadwick’s Tam, has never been heard at that venue. And in these days when Shakespeare and Burns are not taught in schools as extensively as they once were (or should be), these narrations are of considerable help.
 
John France



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