WORKS: Caractacus; Enigma Variations; Imperial March; Coronation March
PERFORMER: Peter Glossop (baritone), Sheila Armstrong (soprano), Robert Tear (tenor), Bryan Rayner Cook (bass-baritone), Malcolm King, Richard Suart (bass); RLPO & Choir/Charles Groves
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 7 63807 2 ADD Reissue (1971, 1977)
If Caractacus lacks that precise spiritual and poetic focus which was to astonish the musical world in Gerontius, this dramatic cantata of 1898 contains great music, together with the orchestral virtuosity which was always Elgar’s hallmark. It was not recorded complete, however, until 1977 under Groves, and now that issue has been digitally remastered we can re-appreciate what a fine achievement it was, ardent in tone and splendidly played by the RLPO.
A rival version did not appear until Hickox’s outstanding account in 1992, which scored over its predecessor in various respects. The recorded sound was fuller, warmly integrating Elgar’s timbres where the EMI engineers tend to separate them, and the orchestral playing and singing were generally more accomplished. But it’s not always straightforward: Armstrong and Tear under Groves, for instance, are passionately touching in their love duet, where Howarth and Davies provided a more controlled expression.
It’s swings and roundabouts with Glossop and Wilson-Johnson in the title role, but overall Hickox’s has to be the preferred version for its excellent sound and interpretation. As makeweights, Hickox includes the Severn Suite, not first-rate Elgar, and Groves a fine Enigma. Anthony Payne