Commenting on Elgar’s Falstaff sixty-four years ago, the composer Robert Simpson wrote: “Falstaff is perhaps Elgar’s greatest work. Perfect in form, profound in character portrayal, it is a very compendium of orchestral technique and a gold-mine of richly imaginative strokes. Although the piece has passages of great force, it is restrained in expression and its most impressive moments are often the quietest. Only one other composer approaches this insight into Falstaff’s character – Verdi. Elgar’s study is one of the greatest symphonic poems in existence and familiarity proves that it far surpasses in subtlety of construction, delicacy of expression and variety of cognate mood, the tone poems of Strauss.”
It was that endorsement by Simpson which first alerted me to the Elgar, since when I have endeavoured to keep tabs on recordings and performances of it, although over the years I have ultimately been disappointed by many well-meaning accounts which have almost invariably exasperated me by one aspect or another, marred further by shortcomings in playing.
On this Chandos release the BBC Philharmonic plays as one of the World’s great orchestras. Yet it is of course Sir Andrew Davis who commands this performance as being superior in every way to any I have heard or can imagine. He achieves clarity of texture rarely revealed by any other conductor, including Boult, and all within an account of great affection and musicality. In grandeur and breadth, at times titanic strength, the warmth and tremendous emotional impact go deeper and far beyond any other in my experience. Davis’s tempos vary from the magnificently broad and firm to the subtlest and most gracious filigree expression, organically evolved to create a characterisation such as we can imagine the figure of Falstaff, in all his moods and situations, to be a living human being – as Elgar must have considered him to be when writing the music.
This is a performance that brings out all of those musical qualities with great clarity. It may be that many conductors do not relish the work’s comparatively unsensational effect and its quiet ending is the last straw, so far as most of them are concerned. But it is precisely that ending which is one of the boldest and most impressive aspects – so subtly orchestrated, pizzicato strings with just the violas giving a C-major chord to end where C-minor is more than implied – a final recognition, perhaps, of hope for the old roué when none seemed possible.
All lovers of Elgar’s music will have to have this recording. They will be additionally rewarded with an exceptionally rare collection of songs for baritone and orchestra, and the two impressive pieces written for Grania and Diarmid, the latter were relatively often heard, but they have long since gone the way of much short music in our current cheese-paring fashion for reducing programmes to just one or two big works. The Grania and Diarmid music dates from 1901, written to accompany a collaborative play by W. B. Yeats and George Moore, dedicated to Henry Wood, who declined to write the incidental music and recommended Elgar. The first piece is rather oddly entitled ‘Incidental Music’ and the second, the more impressive, is a ‘Funeral March’ played attacca. Davis and the BBC Philharmonic give as sensitive and noble a reading as may be imagined.
In the decades preceding World War One (and the appearance of Falstaff), songs formed a regular part of all kinds of musical experiences, from the music hall to recital rooms and the drawing rooms of the best private houses. Today, as with the lack of those shorter score we noted earlier, songs are a great rarity in concert programmes, so it is with additional interest and pleasure that one encounters these nine examples (the witty tenth, ‘Smoking Cantata’, at less than fifty seconds’ duration, does not count – its subject itself indicative of an earlier age), all of which are orchestrated by Elgar himself.
It was a different world then, and it is fascinating to hear such imaginative settings. They are, to be honest, not invariably in the same class as those by Richard Strauss, but are well-worth-knowing, and Elgar’s knowledge of the human voice was sufficiently experienced to enable him to create rewarding and appropriate vocal lines for his chosen texts. In this latter regard, Elgar was no Vaughan Williams or Britten in selecting material of literary merit. Several songs have words by Elgar himself (as quasi-Eastern European folksong texts) and by his wife (one of hers being on the opening of the London thoroughfare Kingsway, WC2 – not quite inspirational material, one should have thought – yet one theme was taken from its recent use (1907), originally far more effectively, in the Fourth Pomp and Circumstance March) and the Opus 59 songs (three from a projected if unfinished cycle of six) have words by the Canadian politician, novelist and poet Sir Gilbert Parker – a passable wordsmith, but no greater than that, yet it must be said that Elgar’s settings raise the quality of the experience to a high level.
Nonetheless, these songs add to our knowledge of the complete Elgar, to his creative responses to various stimuli – and as he was a very great composer, there is much to attract and stir. Quite apart from the merits of such examples as ‘The Pipes of Pan’ and ‘Pleading’, there is Roderick Williams – so beautifully phrased, so finely enunciated, so inherently musical throughout with a timbre of consistent quality that we are drawn back to these fascinating examples of Elgar’s genius. Some may wish that Williams had been a little more closely recorded, but I cannot agree, for to do so would deny us the subtleties of Elgar’s superfine scoring – so much a part of the overall experience.
Add to these manifold qualities the uncommonly fine and informative booklet note by Conor Farrington, with full texts included, and the result is a release that defines the best qualities of the classical record industry today.