WORKS: Caractacus; Severn Suite
PERFORMER: Judith Howarth, Arthur Davies, David Wilson-Johnson, Stephen Roberts, Alastair Miles; LSO & Chorus/Richard Hickox
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9156/7 DDD
With its action centring upon the ignominious defeat of the Britons at the hands of the Romans, HA Acworth’s text for the cantata Caractacus may not be the obvious choice for a work produced in the patriotic wake of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. But Acworth and Elgar provided a rousing finale, calculated to make the collective Victorian bosom swell with imperial pride: ‘For all the world shall learn it/Though long the task shall be/The text of Britain’s teaching,/The message of the free.’ Such preposterous, not to say unhistorical, sentiments have done as much to hinder the appreciation of Elgar’s cantata as any shortcomings of the work itself. In fact, Caractacus, composed in 1897-98, immediately preceded the acknowledged masterpieces Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius, and contains a good deal of inspired music.
Richard Hickox’s Caractacus (the only one available on CD) intermittently captures the Elgarian nobilmente and is sensitive to the evocative quality of the nature music. His soloists are first-rate, with David Wilson-Johnson and Stephen Roberts outstanding as Caractacus and Arch-Druid respectively; the choral singing is magnificent. The characteristically spacious Chandos recording enhances the power and almost operatic sense of drama Hickox brings to bear.
In terms of the controlled fluctuation of pulse, the all-important ebb and flow of phrase, however, none can rival the grand master, Sir Adrian Boult, whose recording of Elgar’s more familiar oratorio The Kingdom – rated by some Elgarians (Boult included) over even Gerontius – makes a welcome return to the catalogue. The solo singing is superb and, at mid-price, this set could still be the top recommendation, despite the rival versions of Hickox on Chandos and Slatkin on RCA.
The Light of Life (1896), though less accomplished than either The Kingdom or Caractacus, has some attractive and memorable music. It is served well by Groves and his soloists. Shame about the chorus. Barry Millington