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.
First-off though, let Elgar’s librettist Mr Acworth (his nineteenth-century words are also in Hyperion’s booklet) set the scene: “Argument. The Britons throughout the South, East, and centre of England having been subdued by the Romans, Caractacus is driven with his remaining forces towards the Welsh frontier, and establishes a great camp on the Malvern Hills, on the summit now known as the British Camp, or Herefordshire Beacon. Wandering in the forest below the hills, Eigen, the daughter of Caractacus, and her betrothed lover, Orbin, are met by a Druid Maiden, who enjoins them to warn the King not to advance into the open country against the Romans. This warning they convey to Caractacus.
"On the ensuing night the omens are taken at a solemn assembly of the Druids. They are read by Orbin, who belongs to the half-priestly order of minstrels, and are declared to be unfavourable. The Arch-Druid deceives the King as to their character, and Caractacus resolves to advance against the Romans. Orbin endeavours to protest, but is cursed and driven forth by the Druids. On the following morning Orbin meets Eigen in a glade of the forest, where youths and maidens are with her gathering flowers for a sacrifice, and bids her farewell, telling her of the deceit practised on the King by the Druids, and of his own expulsion. He adds that he himself is flying from the Druids and intends to join the British forces.
"In the next scene Eigen and her maidens witness the return of Caractacus with the remnants of his army to the camp on the Malvern Hills after their total rout by the Romans. Caractacus and his family, including Orbin, are soon after betrayed into the hands of the enemy. The last scene represents Caractacus with Orbin and Eigen before the tribunal of Claudius, the Emperor of Rome. Claudius is at first disposed to condemn them to death, but is so struck by the intrepidity of Caractacus that he pardons them and assigns them an honourable residence in Rome.
"The general lines of history—or, failing history, of tradition—have been followed. The British Camp on the Malvern Hills is locally attributed to Caractacus. It is doubtless a British work, and is of such an extent as infers occupation by very large numbers. The scene of Caractacus’s last disastrous battle is much disputed; but it was almost certainly on the line of the Severn (Habren), and may probably have been at Caer Caradoc, in Shropshire. The unusual circumstance of mistletoe growing on the oak may be still observed in the woods below the Herefordshire Beacon. Caractacus’s appearance before Claudius in Rome, his bold defence, and the pardon of himself and his daughter are historical. Orbin is an imaginary character.” Harry Arbuthnot Acworth ©1898 [from Hyperion's website]
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.