Elgar’s Caractacus is now (finally) elevated. If perhaps (like me) this Cantata hasn’t quite made it on to the Elgar Essentials list, despite recordings by Charles Groves and Richard Hickox, then Martyn Brabbins and his forces offer a revelation.
Dedicated to Queen Victoria, and first-performed at the 1898 Leeds Festival with the composer conducting, Caractacus—courtesy of the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Orchestra of Opera North and five vibrant and involved singer-soloists—is here able to soar high into one’s consciousness.
My initial plan was to play just a few minutes of the first disc to get a feel for things, yet so compelling was the music and the performance that I listened to the lot there and then, hooked; and I have since returned with eager pleasure before jotting down these few thoughts …
Musically Caractacus works an absolute treat, to the extent that this could only be a score by Elgar, who by now was on the cusp of Gerontius and The Kingdom. Throughout Brabbins sets perfectly judged tempos, the music journeys forward with a palpable sense of drama and occasion yet also with a persuasive flexibility, the big moments relished and with many subtleties of scoring and dynamics arresting the ear. I must praise Simon Eadon’s recorded sound: outstanding in clarity and depth of perspective as well as securing ideal balance between orchestra and chorus, the vocal soloists integrated into the whole as if heard at a concert.
Talking of concerts, I wonder if there was one prior to the sessions, for (whatever post-production took place) there is the distinct feel that we are listening to a ‘real’ performance, suggesting organic compositional thought, that the judiciously prepared performers (even over the three credited recording days) were able to be continuous and spontaneous, as if they arrived in the morning, played and sung the whole thing in-one, and then went home (with no need to return) via a tray of sandwiches and a tea-urn, thanking an inspirational conductor and also producer Andrew Keener for letting things flow.
And flow it does, a story being told, and told vividly. The solo singers’ enunciation is notable (I liked now-a-warrior Orbin’s 'I change my golden harp for steel', scene 3/iv), although some listeners may find vibrato generally overdone at times—although it didn’t trouble me, and anyway it fits the rich expression of the music—and the choral singing and orchestral playing are splendid in so many ways.
Hyperion’s presentation for the two CDs priced-as-one is lavish—not only including Mr Acworth’s text and synopsis but also naming the complete personnel of Choral Society and Orchestra, providing conductor and singers’ biographies, and an in-depth background article from Andrew Neill. If you think Caractacus is a stranger to you, recognisable I am sure will be ‘The woodland interlude’ (picturesque and charming) and ‘The March Triumphal Thunders’ that opens the final scene with (here) a swagger, choral splendour and a generous spirit, the music itself exuding a pride and tunefulness that points the way with circumstance to later pomp.