WORKS: Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf; The Banner of Saint George
PERFORMER: Emily Birsan (soprano), Barry Banks (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone); Collegiûm Mûsicûm Choir; Edvard Grieg Kor; Bergen Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5149(2) (hybrid CD/SACD)
Well before Enigma Variations, King Olaf confirmed Elgar’s rising star in British music. Since World War One, though, it’s largely been airbrushed out of his career, rarely performed and, apart from 1930s excerpts, recorded only once – by Vernon Handley (1985). Its libretto – adapted by Elgar’s friend Harry Acworth from Longfellow’s retelling of the saga of Norway’s first Christian king – was rather unfairly considered too old-fashioned. But Acworth’s stilted verses struggle to depict the fearsome Viking Olaf, entangled with (probably fictional) royal seductresses, as an Edwardian gallant knight. Fortunately there’s nothing stilted about Elgar’s music: it crackles with confident vitality and is Wagnerian in aspiration yet owes him little. At its best it prefigures great things to come, listen for instance to the pounding chorus ‘I am the God Thor’; the spooky ‘The Wraith of Odin’; the lyrical love scene ‘Thyri’, and the solemn finale ‘As Torrents in Summer’.
It’s also great fun to sing, and the Norwegian choruses respond with crisp vigour and superb English diction, only faintly (and appropriately) Scandinavian-tinged. Davis’s expansive conducting and the excellent Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra bring out Elgar’s vivid orchestral textures more successfully than Handley, aided by SACD sound. His soloists are also generally better – although Barry Banks, a fine lyric tenor, is just as strained by his role as Philip Langridge was. The Elgar Society excerpts featuring Tudor Davies, a steely heroic tenor, leave little doubt this was the kind of voice Elgar intended. But that said, this is still a brilliant new recording. The once popular St George is less inspired but remains worth hearing.
Michael Scott Rohan