Three Choirs Festival 2011 (5) – Sir Andrew Davis’ fine performance of an Elgar rarity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Elgar,  Caractacus, Op. 35 (1898):  Judith Howarth (soprano) (Eigen), Ben Johnson (tenor) (Orbin). Peter Savidge (baritone) (Caractacus), Stephen Roberts (baritone) (Arch-Druid  & Bard), Brindley Sherratt (bass) (Claudius), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis. Worcester Cathedral. 10.8.2011 (JQ)

Elgar wrote Caractacus in 1898 to a commission from the prestigious Leeds Festival and he himself conducted the first performance in Leeds in October that year. Two years later he conducted the third of its six scenes at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival. Since then, so far as I can discover, there have only been two performances of the work – both of them complete – at the Three Choirs, both at Gloucester. The first was in 1977 and the second, which I attended, was in 1989.

The date of the work is important in the Elgar canon for it was composed just one year before his triumph with the ‘Enigma’ Variations and Gerontius was to follow in 1900. So Caractacus was created just as he was on the cusp of achieving greatness. Why, then has the work fallen into almost complete neglect? – I doubt it receives many performances at all these days. Well part of the trouble must surely lie with the libretto. For this Elgar turned again to H. A. Acworth, who had fashioned the libretto for Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf (1896). Acworth was not a professional poet and his words, though no doubt worthy, don’t exactly resonate with modern audiences (I’m being charitable here.)  Thus, the libretto includes such gems of Victoriana as:

 ‘On the ocean and the river,
By the stream that cuts the plain,
Sails and pennons fill and quiver,
And the war horse champs the grain;’

Those words, from Scene I, are given to the tenor, who sings the role of the one-time bard, Orbin. In the third scene the same character has to sing:

‘Silenc’d, and curs’d, and driv’n to flight,
I tore my bardic robes of white –
A warrior now, for Britain’s weal
I change my golden harp for steel.’

But though those words may strike modern day listeners as being of pretty poor quality verse – and there’s plenty more where they came from! – these words would not have struck the listeners of 1898 as out of place. I think that the libretto of Caractacus has more fatal flaws than the words themselves. For one thing, the libretto is far too long and wordy – the work lasted for just over ninety minutes on this occasion. Worse still, Acworth exhibits no real dramatic flair so that much of the ‘action’ is, in reality, a series of rather static tableaux. The final chorus is very much of its time. Immediately before it we have witnessed the Roman Emperor, Claudius, moved by the noble sentiments of the vanquished Britons, showing clemency to Caractacus and his followers. That’s followed by a rousing chorus in which there is celebration that ‘The empire of the Roman is crumbled into clay’ and, leaping the centuries in a trice, assuring the audience that Britain is now, indisputably, Top Nation. At least Elgar inspires us with one of his fine, noble tunes during this chorus, at the words ‘For all the world shall learn it/though long the task shall be.’

One thing that struck me quite forcibly in this performance, which was excellent in many ways, was that often the most interesting things to hear were going on in the orchestra. Time and again the orchestration is skilful and imaginative and one could easily believe that ‘Enigma’ lay just around the corner. Vocally, however, much of the material is less interesting and, frankly, Elgar made a quantum leap in just two years to get to the mastery of Gerontius. I can only surmise that while Acworth’s text may have stimulated him Newman’s words delivered the artistic equivalent of an electric shock.

So, with a problematic libretto and music in which the composer was still working towards greatness – though nearly there – the work will only make its mark if it receives a performance of conviction and high quality. Happily, for the most part that’s what we heard in Worcester Cathedral.

The five soloists included two, Judith Howarth and Stephen Roberts, who were reprising the roles they took in Richard Hickox’s fine 1992 recording of the work for Chandos (CHAN 9156/7). Miss Howarth sang with lovely tone and displayed all the vocal strength necessary for what is a demanding role. Unfortunately, she sang with a rather generous vibrato so that, even though I was following in the score, I found her words were often unclear. Still, she was characterful as Eigen, the daughter of Caractacus and produced some impressive sounds.

I’m afraid I was far less impressed with Stephen Roberts. His pitching did not seem to me to be completely accurate and his singing often lacked clarity. I felt he had insufficient vocal weight or presence, especially in the first half of the performance when he sang the role of the Arch-Druid; he was better in the smaller role of the Bard later on.

The other male soloists put him in the shade, I fear, Brindley Sherratt was a late replacement for the indisposed Matthew Best. One wonders how often he can have sung the part of Claudius, the Roman Emperor; not often, surely. However, he was imposing and dignified in the role and sang with a nice, full tone and pleasing clarity. I don’t recall previously hearing the young tenor, Ben Johnson, live in concert but he came to Worcester with an impressive pedigree – he is one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists, for one thing. I was very impressed. He has a clear, ringing voice and he was fearless in the face of a role that is often cruelly high lying. Just for a couple of brief instances he was taxed by a top A or B flat but these were tiny incidents in a performance that otherwise was completely accurate and assured and that fell very pleasingly on the ear. His diction was admirably clear and he was completely convincing throughout the evening. I enjoyed his singing very much, especially in his ardent duet with Miss Howarth at the end of Scene III.

But the stand-out soloist was Peter Savidge in the title role. From first to last his singing was superb. His voice was clear and evenly produced throughout his whole compass. He brought genuine nobility and dignity to the role of Caractacus and though he had ample power when required he also demonstrated a great deal of sensitivity. Crowning his evening was a truly outstanding account of the aria ‘O my warriors.’ Here was dignity combined with sadness, just as Elgar surely intended, and twice in the solo Mr Savidge produced effortless top Gs of the sort that produce envy and admiration in equal measure among other baritones. His account of this aria was genuinely moving and, for me, the highlight of the evening.

The Festival Chorus did well in music which I doubt many of them have sung before. They were, for example, strong and incisive in the Triumphal March that opens Scene VI though there were occasions, such as in the chorus that opens Scene I, when they rather struggled to get the words across over Elgar’s often full orchestration. Their work in Scene IV, in the lead up to ‘O my warriors’ was admirable.

The Philharmonia continued their excellent form of the preceding evening concerts. The playing was often powerful but when delicacy was required the orchestra delivered – the Woodland Interlude at the start of Scene III was a delight. The players won’t often have come across this score, I’m sure, but you wouldn’t know it for they brought out all the colour and subtlety of Elgar’s scoring very well indeed.

Mind you, both singers and players must have benefited from the presence on the podium of one of our leading Elgar conductors. Once again the Three Choirs had engaged just the right guest conductor. Sir Andrew Davis often appears as a jovial figure on the podium, which must of itself encourage performers, especially amateurs, but of course he is a deeply serious musician. I wonder if he’s ever had the chance to conduct Caractacus. Probably not, but he brought all his Elgar experience to bear and gave every sign that he was enjoying the assignment very much. He directed proceedings with great energy but also brought the requisite delicacy to the many passages in the work that require it. Crucially, not only were his tempi thoroughly convincing but also he judged the many subtle modifications of tempo, so important in Elgarian ebb and flow, very well. He played the piece for all it’s worth and his leadership inspired a fine and convincing performance.

The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for transmission in September and all Elgar devotees should take the chance to experience this rarely heard work for themselves in what was a very good performance of it.

John Quinn