Elgar’s Stirring Tale of Vengeful Gods, Warring Vikings and Doomed Love

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2017 [5] – Elgar, Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf: Erin Wall (soprano), Robert Dean Smith (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass), Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Usher Hall, 11.8.2017. (RP)

Sir Andrew David © Dario Acosta
Sir Andrew David © Dario Acosta

Elgar’s Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf dates from 1896, just three years before the Enigma Variations launched his international career. Before that, he was a frustrated journeyman musician with thwarted ambitions, garnering the odd commission, accompanying local groups and choirs, and holding a series of jobs that included serving as the conductor of the attendants’ band at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum and teaching violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen. King Olaf was commissioned by Dr Charles Swinnerton Heap, founder and conductor of the North Staffordshire Music Festival, where it received its premiere.

King Olaf had its day, but then faded into obscurity. Sir Andrew Davis has championed the work, recording it for Chandos with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and bringing it to this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. The storyline is a bit convoluted and the text at times less than inspired, but the music is wonderful, complete with the thumping of the tympani, the rattle of the snare drum, the flourish of the harp, the ear-piercing cry of the piccolo and blaring brass. It is not all warring gods and stirring battles at sea, however, as Elgar composed some beautiful melodies and splendid choruses extolling nature, romantic love and religion.

During the nineteenth century there was a fascination with ancient Nordic myths on both sides of the Atlantic. Elgar turned to American author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘The Saga of King Olaf’ for inspiration, asking his neighbor, Harry Arbuthnot Acworth, to fashion a libretto out of the 22-part saga. Acworth spent some time in the Indian Civil Service, and his imperialist ardor and Christian piety perfume the text. The two men pared down Longfellow’s saga, freely adapting much of it and adding scenes of their own, to spin a tale which charts Olaf’s return from exile aflame with the new religion, romantic misadventures and dramatic death at sea. If the scenes are not neatly stitched together, some of the blame rests with Elgar’s publisher, Novello, who asked that the longer narrative sections be cut.

Robert Dean Smith was King Olaf and the focus of the performance, in part because he sang from memory: freed from a score, he stood a foursquare and formidable hero. If his high notes did not ring out freely, he nonetheless nobly sailed through the turbulent vocal waters of the first scene, ‘The Challenge of Thor’. Smith’s love song in ‘The Grey Land Breaks to Lively Green’ was absolutely beautiful, with his ardor poured forth in lilting, silvery tones. There is more than a bit of Irish tenor in that grand Wagnerian voice.

The soprano soloist is called upon to impersonate three women – Gudrun, the daughter of Ironbeard whom Olaf slays and who dies mysteriously on her wedding night; the haughty Sigrid, the old queen of the North, who will not abandon the pagan gods; and Thyri, who weds Olaf primarily, it would seem, to regain her lost dower lands in Iceland. (Olaf takes the bait and dies in a sea battle trying to regain them.) Erin Wall, with flowing blond hair and a vibrant yellow dress, looked every inch a Viking princess and sang like one too with her gleaming silvery soprano. Her voice road the crests of Elgar’s soaring vocal lines with ease, with high notes that bloomed radiantly.

The deep, resonant bass voice of Matthew Rose thundered as Ironbeard and, once he is dispatched by Olaf, vividly narrated the action that leads to Olaf’s death in battle. Vocally he was just fine, and he displayed a fine flare for text, but fell short dramatically as he mostly sang with his face buried in his score.

The Edinburgh Festival Chorus was wonderful, expertly prepared by chorus master Christopher Bell. Their diction was precise and clear, and they displayed a remarkable sensitivity to phrasing and text. When the sopranos sang with the piccolo in the extended choral ballad, ‘The Wrath of Odin’, the air crackled with the clarity of their sound and perfect intonation. The tenors had an equally thrilling moment just a few bars later when they were joined by the trumpets in a unified, glowing, bronze-like flow of sound. Elgar knew how to write for and please a chorus, and the EFC gloried in the delights and challenges that he afforded them. It was their show.

Elgar composed vivid orchestrations to underpin his Viking saga and the Philharmonia Orchestra likewise reveled in the score. The thunder of the gods and battles at sea were glorious, as was the lilt of a song on a sunny summer day. Seldom does the piccolo, expertly played by Keith Bragg, get so many moments to shine, and the tympani is also heard throughout. Positioned prominently at the rear of the stage, Antoine Siguré was great fun to watch performing like a master showman. Usher Hall has a magnificent Norman & Beard of Norwich organ, which commands the hall. With Alistair Young at the console, it rumbled wondrously adding a resonant depth to the orchestra’s sound.

It would be 1919 before Elgar realized his dream of composing a cello concerto, which was his last major work, but he knew how to write for the instrument well before that. Some of the most beautiful melodies in King Olaf are for the cellos, played by Philharmonia’s with rich, vibrant, singing tone.

Longfellow’s poem was a favorite of American President Theodore Roosevelt, of the ‘speak softly, and carry a big stick’ school of international diplomacy. He wrote that children who learn the Saga by rote and feel the spirit of it ‘will always have in them something to which an appeal for brave action can be made’. Elgar’s King Olaf ends on a different note: ‘Stronger than steel is the sword of the Spirit; Swifter than arrows the light of the truth is, Rather than anger is love, and subdueth!’ The British Empire at its noble best.

Rick Perdian

The 2017 Edinburgh International Festival runs until 28 August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk.

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