Falstaff – Symphonic Study in C-minor, Op.68
Timothy West, Samuel West, Erik Chapman & Billy Wiz (speakers)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recorded 17-19 September 2018 in Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff; ”Henry IV excerpts” recorded 8 February 2019 at Henry Wood Hall, London & “Tam O’Shanter spoken introduction” on 17 December 2018 at Wathen Hall, St Paul’s Boys’ School, Hammersmith, London
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: August 2019
CD No: ORCHID CLASSICS
ORC100103 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 47 minutes
In reviewing Andrew Constantine’s previous Orchid Classics issue of Chadwick and Elgar, I wrote: “The premise of this release is to couple music by two contemporaneous composers, the American George Whitefield Chadwick (born 1854 in Massachusetts) and Edward Elgar (arriving in England three years later). Chadwick’s ambition was to be internationally recognised as a composer, and although he was successful locally, and also respected as director of the New England Conservatory, worldwide appreciation was denied to him, whereas Elgar was celebrated on a far wider scale; today, Chadwick may be considered a footnote in musical history, Elgar a major presence.”
Now it’s time to couple Falstaff and Tam O’Shanter. The Elgar is presented twice, either as written or (and this would have been better placed on the second CD, as an appendix) interspersed with lines from Shakespeare’s Henry IV (both parts) – if the latter appeals then rest-assured it couldn’t be better done with Timothy West as Sir John and Samuel West as Prince Hal.
Yet Elgar’s unbroken narrative tells the story just as implicitly in musical terms (to slightly misquote Bernard Haitink: “all [you] have to do is listen”), for which an in-form BBCNOW and an insightful Constantine are honourable to the “symphonic” aspect of Elgar’s score – Boult-like (Sir Adrian recorded Falstaff three times) – and also introduce much pointed-up characterisation: with flair, tenderness (lovely violin solo from Lesley Hatfield in the first Interlude), with swagger and soulfulness, vivid detailing (violins antiphonal, basses left-positioned) and judicious tempos; a thoroughly fine and satisfying version.
More or less contemporaneous with Elgar’s masterly take on Falstaff is Chadwick’s rather stunning depiction (1915) of Robert Burns’s Tam O’Shanter. What a piece! (New to me.) A separate track finds Erik Chapman as the composer and Billy Wiz as Burns reading Chadwick’s programme note (Tam is a “symphonic ballad”, says its creator) – well done, too, although the music does say it all.
The opening is remarkable, a carbon-copy, and as equally arresting, fortissimo string tremolo – exactly how the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony starts – could Chadwick have attended a performance of the Mahler, or seen a score? From there it’s twenty minutes of ear-grabbing invention, fantastically orchestrated, worthy of Berlioz’s Witches – tempestuous, wild, Scottish tunes, allusions to fiddle (masqueraded by a viola) and bagpipe, dramatic Nature-painting, thunder-creating timpani, skeletons-suggesting xylophone, urgent strings, skirling woodwinds, declamatory brass – all depicting Tam’s incident-packed nocturnal/nightmarish homeward-bound journey on his mare. Malcolm Arnold’s version is shorter (Alexander Gibson’s Decca recording is definitive), George Chadwick’s just as compelling, which finds BBCNOW and Constantine totally caught up with a century-old score that may well have been desperate for this performance for so long; the radiant daybreak ending has a suggestion (no more than that) of the to-come Tapiola about it, and then only for a few bars. ★★★★★
I have a feeling I’ll be spinning these discs quite a few times, a release that concerns not only an Edward and a George but three Andrews – Constantine (of course), Keener (producer) and Neill (booklet annotator) – and not forgetting Simon Eadon’s sound-engineering, a model of marrying clarity and impact as well as defining a discernible and excellent acoustic. (Others were involved in capturing the words.)
Please note that the UK release date is September 13, a week later for the rest of the World, but no doubt you can (as they say) pre-order – if you don’t already know Tam O’Shanter I doubt very much that you will regret investigating it, and this is also a top-recommendation Falstaff.