Elgar The Crown of India [BBC Philharmonic/Andrew Davis]

0 of 5 stars

The Crown of India, Op.66 – An Imperial Masque in Two Tableaux [orchestration completed by Anthony Payne; Words by Henry Hamilton]
The Crown of India, Op.66 – An Imperial Masque in Two Tableaux [orchestration completed by Anthony Payne; Words by Henry Hamilton; edited by Sir Andrew Davis]
Imperial March, Op.32
The Coronation March, Op.65
The Empire March

Clare Shearer (mezzo-soprano) & Gerald Finley (baritone)

Barbara Marten, Deborah McAndrew & Joanne Mitchell (speakers)

Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus

BBC Philharmonic
Sir Andrew Davis

Recorded 19 & 20 June 2009 in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: November 2009
CHAN 10570 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 32 minutes



This “Imperial Masque in Two Tableaux” is another Elgar premiere, all the music of The Crown of India, with orchestrations for some of the sections completed by Anthony Payne, and recorded with the spoken text by Henry Hamilton (1853-1918). Elgar composed it early – and quickly – in 1912 (nearly an hour of music, with much recourse to unused material from other works), and it was first performed, with the composer conducting, on 11 March 1912, at the London Coliseum. There was a piano score for the whole thing, and Elgar made a suite of some of the individual numbers, but the full score was lost when the building it was archived in was demolished in the 1970s; hence Payne’s involvement. The masque was commissioned to mark the third and last Durbar, in 1911, under British imperial rule, an extravagant display of power at which India paid homage to King George V and Queen Mary as Emperor and Empress. The British Raj had only another 35 years to run, and during that time there were to be two devastating world wars, so in retrospect the 1911 Durbar was one of the last big statements of British expansionist confidence.

Elgar possibly has done The Crown of India no favours when he described it as a potboiler, with the commission usefully arriving when he had just moved into his new and expensive house in Hampstead. Furthermore, the text, which Elgar found difficult to work with, has fixed the work in the area of high Victorian, lofty, overblown rhetoric, written at a time when the English treated as much of the world as possible as one big, robust and stern public school. Of course, the work has many tub-thumping, fervently nationalistic passages – St George’s song, ‘The Rule of England‘, with the chorus extolling the Kingland’s ever-glorious manhood, and ‘March’ are both in vigorous pomp and circumstance mode – but there is much music that is memorably poetic and evocative – the lovely, pensive opening; the dreamy melancholy of the interlude with its ravishing violin solo (Yuri Torchinsky), the Homage of Ind, and many other fine passages. It may not be in the league of the wonderful “Coronation Ode”, but it is by no means all elephants and oriental magnificence.

Chandos, very wisely, also gives us the option of hearing the whole thing, text and all (75 minutes on CD 1), or just the music (57 minutes on CD 2, with choral and solo singer passages, and the generous addition of three marches). The text is for three speakers, who represent India and the cities of Delhi and Calcutta, who argue over which of the two rivals should be named as the new capital. The ethos of the text may as well be from another planet, although at around 100 years old the assumptions are just about a living memory, and one can easily imagine the speakers at the first performance striking much more confident, possibly matronly and plummily enunciated attitudes than the speakers – Barbara Marten, Deborah McAndrew and Joanne Mitchell – on this recording.

Clare Shearer (singing and speaking the roles of Agra, Benares and Lotus) gives her music the contralto gravitas it needs, and Gerald Finley is superbly rousing as St George – “Whenever England flies her flag O’er what her sword hath won, Her claim to keep, to rule, to reap, She rests on duty done” – ah, those were the days. The Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus gives the music that firm, open-throated style that could only be English, and Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic play out Elgar’s and Anthony Payne’s colourful and shimmering orchestration with great conviction. The booklet neatly links the track numbers to the text and to the original running order, although there is no mention anywhere in the packaging that the Crown of India music on the second CD is just the music without text, and there are a couple of photographs that suggest the sort of spectacle that would have greeted the 1912 audience.

The three marches include a superb performance of The Coronation March, which in its short span seems to distil Elgar’s astonishing emotional range. In short, this is a fascinating, enthralling must for Elgarians.

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