John Quinn
MusicWeb International
April 2019

Caractacus is the last choral/orchestral work that Elgar composed prior to The Dream of Gerontius. It was premiered at the Leeds Music Festival in 1898, with the composer conducting.

This is the third complete recording of the work. First into the lists, in 1977, was Sir Charles Groves who recorded it in Liverpool for EMI. I don’t think you can buy that as an individual set any more, though you may be able to pick it up as part of a boxed set of Elgar recordings. In 1992 Richard Hickox set down a version in sumptuous Chandos sound. Now another doughty champion of British music, Martyn Brabbins has given us a brand-new version.

Appraising the Hickox set, my colleague Gwyn Parry-Jones described the work as ‘a mixed bag of a piece’ and I can’t dissent from that view. Foremost in the debit side of the ledger is the libretto by Elgar’s friend and Malvern neighbour, H A Ackworth. Henry Arbuthnot Ackworth was a retired Indian civil servant who had previously supplied part of the libretto for Elgar’s Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf (1894). Whatever talents Ackworth may have possessed, I’m afraid that he was no literary giant. The opening lines of his libretto give a flavour: ‘Watchmen, alert! The Roman hosts/Have girdled in our British coasts;/On ev’ry river’s swelling tide/The sharp-beak’d Roman galleys ride.’ I fear there’s a good deal more in a similar vein. In truth, it’s a considerable achievement on Elgar’s part that often—though not always—in Caractacus he was able to take the base metal of Ackworth’s words and through his music make them into something infinitely more valuable.

The story of Caractacus concerns the eponymous British chieftain who, between AD43 and AD51, resisted and harried the occupying Romans until he and his armies were finally defeated in battle, probably somewhere in modern-day Wales. Caractacus, his family and followers were taken as prisoners to Rome where, impressed by his captive’s eloquence, the Emperor Claudius allowed him and the Britons with him to live out their days in relative comfort in Rome. As Andrew Neill points out in his valuable booklet note, Ackworth took some factual liberties in crafting his libretto, including the invention of the character of Orbin and by conflating the children of Caractacus into one character: his daughter, Eigen. As we shall see, he and Elgar also added to the story an Epilogue which was very much in keeping with the spirit of their times.

Given the limitations of Ackworth’s libretto there is no point in performing Caractacus in any way other than with full commitment: one takes the words for what they are. Happily, there’s no lack of commitment in the present performance. I was delighted to find that the title role has been entrusted to Roland Wood because I was seriously impressed when I heard hm in the role of Pilgrim in ENO’s production of Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s Progress back in 2012; perhaps it’s no coincidence that the conductor, then as now, was Martyn Brabbins. Wood makes a fine impression when we first encounter him in Scene I, which is set in the British Camp in the Malvern Hills (a place name that endures to this day.) Wood’s delivery of his first solo is excellent, the tone firm and clear. This is dignified singing and it proves to be a harbinger of what is to follow from him. The highlight of his performance—and, indeed, the musical highlight of the whole work—is the lament ‘O my warriors’, sung by Caractacus in Scene IV after the British army has been routed by the Roman legions. Here, Elgar’s imagination truly takes wing and the lament is powerful and moving with two top Gs thrown in for particular expressive emphasis. Wood is marvellous in this aria—for such it is—singing with fine feeling and great intelligence. Anyone who has the Hickox set will recall that David Wilson-Johnson is equally distinguished in the title role. In ‘O my warriors’ the two singers are neck and neck until the second of those top G’s, which Wilson-Johnson hits even more convincingly and truly than Wood.

If honours are pretty evenly divided between the two lead baritones then the same is true of the sopranos. I was very taken recently with Elizabeth Llewellyn in Martyn Brabbins’ recording of A Sea Symphony. She’s no less impressive here. She offers delectable singing in her Scene III solo (‘O’er-arch’d by leaves the streamlet weaves’) and she enters ardently into her duets with Orbin. She also conveys daughterly concern for Caractacus earlier in the score and in Scene VI she convinces as the loyal, dignified daughter in the face of her Roman captors. Throughout, her singing affords great pleasure: the tone is lovely, her diction is good, and she copes effortlessly with the compass of the role—right up to a top C towards the end of Scene VI. Judith Howarth is Hickox’s Eigen and I’d find it hard to express a preference for one of these sopranos over the other, save to say that there are one or two occasions where Miss Howarth is perhaps a bit more dramatic in her delivery—‘When the glow of the evening’ in Scene IV is a case in point.

Choice is rather easier in the case of the tenors. I don’t recall hearing Elgan Llŷr Thomas before. He’s a young singer and much of what he does is very good. He certainly brings ardour to the role of Orbin and, for example, he offers passionate singing in Scene I (‘On the ocean and the river’) A little later, at ‘Hear me, father! Hear me’ (Scene II) he’s very committed, as are the members of the Huddersfield Choral Society in this episode. However. Arthur Davies, who sings for Hickox was a much more experienced singer when he made that recording in 1992—he was 51 at the time—and it shows. I find him more convincing dramatically and he has greater vocal resources. Occasionally Thomas sounds strained by the tessitura but every one of Davies’ top notes rings out truly and firmly.

The other two soloists have less to do. Christopher Purves is the Arch-Druid in Scenes I and II and later takes the much smaller role of A Bard. He does both very well. The role of the Arch-Druid gives him more scope and Purves is commanding in his portrayal. Alastair Miles is suitably imperious as Emperor Claudius, a role he also took for Hickox.

It’s good to find the Huddersfield Choral Society recording Elgar again in Huddersfield Town Hall. Their predecessors of the 1945 and 1954 vintages recorded The Dream of Gerontius in the same hall with Sir Malcolm Sargent. Elgar’s great oratorio is surely in that choir’s very DNA but the same won’t be true of Caractacus, which is a rarity in any choir’s repertoire. They make a thoroughly good job of the assignment. They’re full-throated and committed whenever that’s required, making a splendid showing at the very end, for example, but they also do very well in the more lightly scored passages. In Scene III, for instance, their singing is very delicate in ‘Come! beneath our woodland bowr’s’—it’s just a pity that the words they have to sing at this point are so twee.

This must have been an interesting assignment for the Orchestra of Opera North. Time and again as I listened, I noted resourceful and imaginative scoring by Elgar—the breakthrough work that is the ‘Enigma’ Variations lay only about a year in the future and Caractacus proves that the mastery of the orchestra that he showed in that work didn’t come from nowhere. The orchestral contribution to this recording is excellent in every way.

Martyn Brabbins leads a spirited and stylish performance. Although the story is that of a warrior chieftain vanquished in battle there’s surprisingly little martial or ceremonial music in the score—and what there is rightly gets the full-blooded treatment, the Triumphal March at the start of Scene IV being a case in point. Quite a lot of the writing in Caractacus is more pastoral in nature—the ‘Woodland Interlude’ that opens Scene III is by no means the only such instance. Brabbins ensures that the nature music in Caractacus receives its full recognition, conducting such episodes with charm and empathy.

The close of the work is very much of its time. Actively encouraged by Elgar, Ackworth penned a choral Epilogue which is a paean to Empire and a reminder that, as the reign of Queen Victoria drew to a close, much of the world map was coloured pink, showing the British Empire. As the writers of 1066 and All That would have had it, the British considered themselves ‘Top Nation’ in 1898. Such sentiments are desperately out of fashion nowadays but in Caractacus we must take them for what they are. As I write this review the UK Parliament is deep in the mire of Brexit uncertainty and I found myself slightly envious of the certainty and national self-confidence that enabled Ackworth to write in particular the last four lines of his libretto. And when those lines are sung to the memorably noble tune that Elgar provided (CD 2, track 12, 3:28) words and music bespeak an old order that would soon be swept away by the First World War but which, in 1898, must have seemed enduring to Britons.

This new Hyperion recording has been impressively engineered by Simon Eadon—the producer was Andrew Keener. The Chandos sound on the Hickox recording has that label’s usual depth, presence and richness but when I made A/B comparisons I found that the Hyperion recording is fully its equal. On this new set the soloists have just the right degree of prominence while both the choir and orchestra are expertly conveyed. I loved the way that the Town Hall organ added its sonority at key points. The documentation is very good, though I wish a slightly larger font could be used in Hyperion booklets.

Caractacus is not the equal of The Dream of Gerontius but it’s a key work in Elgar’s development towards the genius that soon was to produce Gerontius and ‘Enigma’. It also contains a significant amount of very good music in its own right. This very fine performance enables us to appreciate its stature.