If I am honest, I am not an Elgar enthusiast. Do no get me wrong: I enjoy his music, and regard many of his works as masterpieces. My life would be much the poorer if I could not listen to the Violin Concerto, the Second Symphony and the sun-drenched Overture: In the South. Perhaps I ought to have said that I am not an Elgar ‘groupie’. By this I mean that there are huge tracts of the composer’s music that I do not particularly enjoy or appreciate. This includes (heresy to many, no doubt) the great oratorios, Gerontius, The Kingdom and The Apostles. I do recognise these works as great music: it is just that they do not ‘do’ for me. And I have to admit that the same goes for the two important works presented on this CD. My initial thought is that ‘King Olaf’ outstays his welcome and The Banner of St George is a period piece that, in spite some gorgeous melodies, is very much a ‘child of its time’. Elgarians will no doubt roundly disagree.
The excellent liner notes by Andrew Neill give the listener all the historical and analytical information that they will require. The texts of both works are also included with scores freely available on the Internet. However a few brief notes about each work may be of some interest.
The cantata Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, op.30 is a long work, lasting for more than eighty minutes, making it almost ‘operatic’ in length. The work is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) which was made into a libretto consisting of a prologue, nine scenes and a concluding epilogue. The work was completed in 1896 and was first performed in the Victoria Hall, Hanley during that year’s North Staffordshire Music Festival. The basic ‘plot’ of the cantata is the life, wars, loves and death of the great King Olaf, who was a Norse warrior turned Christian. In a rather politically incorrect manner, he used his sword to make converts to his new found faith.
The various sections include ‘The Challenge of Thor’, ‘King Olaf’s Return’, ‘The Conversion’, ‘Gudrun’, ‘The Wrath of Odin’, ‘Sigrid’, ‘Thyri’, ‘The Death of Olaf’ and the epilogue. The whole proceedings are written from the point of view of the skalds or poets recalling the history at second-hand – a kind of Longfellow-ian version of the Canterbury Tales.
Even the Elgar Society’s own webpages note that the work has been criticised for the ‘banality of its lyrics and storyline’. Yet the story is full of fascinating Norse mythology and legend.
I enjoyed listening to King Olaf, in spite of my reservations noted above. The performance is excellent with many beautiful and often deeply moving moments. Elgar has provided an internally consistent score that includes much fine music. My criticism is that it is over long and sometimes slow-moving. All that said, enthusiasts of this work will find it ideal.
The Banner of St George was composed the following year (1897) which was Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. It is a ‘ballad in two scenes and epilogue for chorus and orchestra’. The text was provided by the Bristolian poet Shapcott Wensley (Henry Shapcott) (1854-1917). The cantata’s premiere was at the St Cuthbert’s Hall Choral Society event in London on 18 May of that year. The story tells simply of the saving of the King of Sylenë’s daughter, Sabra from the wiles of the dragon by St. George of Cappadocia. The concluding epilogue (not written to be particularly complimentary to the valour of the Scots, Welsh or Irish) is a bit of jingoistic bombast: ‘Three crosses in concord blended/ The banner of Britain’s might!/ But the central gem of the ensign fair/ Is the cross of the dauntless knight!’
In spite of the work’s banality, it was warmly received by critics and audiences alike. And don’t get me wrong, I can do tub-thumping, sentimentality and vapidity with the best of them…at the bottom line, it is a ‘right good sing…’
Both works are stunningly performed. It is good that Andrew Davis has drawn on the excellent Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and that great city’s excellent choral forces to present this story of Norse and Cappadocian derring-do. The soloists Emily Birsan, Barry Banks and Alan Opie take this music seriously and bring an operatic feel the the progress of King Olaf. The singing of the choir is beyond reproach. As mentioned above, the liner notes are superb.
As far as I understand there is only one other recording of each work in the catalogues, both from EMI. King Olaf was recorded by Vernon Handley with the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra (EX 270553-3) and The Banner of St George was also issued by EMI with Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia of England. (EL 270555-1)
I do not know the former recording, but I do have a soft spot for the latter, which I think has the edge on this new CD. Hickox seems to be able to imbue the work with more drama and intensity – especially in the ‘dragon and arrival of St George scenes.’ However, it is churlish to compare these recordings: all three are clearly produced by leading recording companies and performed by world class forces.
Elgar’s Cantatas (Olaf, Caractacus, Black Knight etc.) will never be my first choice of music. Having heard the two works on this CD, I cannot fail to be impressed with the composer’s ability to write engaging music for these prosaic texts. Some of the passages in both works are sublime and constitute miniature masterpieces within the entire work. Listeners who like to hunt latent potential in a composer’s early works will have great scope for their activities in King Olaf in particular.
Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, op.30 (1896)
The Banner of St George (1897)
Emily Birsan (soprano) Barry Banks (tenor) and Alan Opie (baritone)
Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Edvard Grieg Kor, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis
CHANDOS CHSA5149 (2)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.