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Andrew Davis conducts Elgar’s Falstaff and Orchestral Songs

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Falstaff; Orchestral Songs; Grania and Diarmid Roderick Williams (baritone);
BBC Philharmonic/Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5188 (hybrid CD/SACD)


Andrew Davis’s Falstaff brought at least one thing into focus for me: years after I first heard it I’m still waiting for a light to go on. This profusely inventive late score is so full of brilliant, colourful, atmospheric music that by rights it ought to be a masterpiece. And yet, even after a performance as vivid and authoritative as this one, I still can’t see the whole for the parts. Overall there’s something bafflingly elusive about it. Above all there’s that bizarre ending: definitely not a bang, and barely even a whimper. This isn’t a poignant aesthetic representation of the process of fatal disillusionment – like the conclusion of Strauss’s Don Quixote. It’s just disappointing. It says a lot for Andrew Davis’s interpretation that for at least two thirds of this Falstaff I was still hopeful. Perhaps this time it would all make sense? But no, the final quiet pizzicato C still feels like Elgar throwing in the towel in a gesture of weary despondency.

The performances of the songs are ardent, warm and full of conviction. As ever Roderick Williams sounds completely on the composer’s side. But after Falstaff it’s all too clear that they really aren’t top drawer Elgar. Falstaff may only shine in parts, but when it does shine it’s captivating. The songs are never quite that good, and often a lot less so: the humour of the tiny Smoking Cantata falls almost as flat as the end of Falstaff.

A fine effort all round, recording very much included, but perhaps not the ideal present for an Elgar-phobic.

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Stephen Johnson