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Elgar and the First World War
Sir Andrew Davis
By James Longstaffe
It’s probably fair to say that, aside from the choral ode The Spirit of England, relatively little of the music written by Sir Edward Elgar during the First World War is performed or recorded today. However, there are two new discs that attempt to plug these gaps, and I must say it’s been a pleasure getting to know some of his more obscure works. First there is a new Chandos recording of music for a play entitled The Starlight Express, a children’s fantasy story of sprites and stardust based on a 1913 novel by Algernon Henry Blackwood. Containing some of Elgar’s most charming music, the score seems to have left its mark on contemporary listeners, with one soldier writing to Elgar from Flanders in 1917, saying that he had been playing the gramophone recording of this music many times in the mess, adding “Music is all that we have to help us carry on”.
For this recording, conductor Sir Andrew Davis presents the incidental music in its entirety. Davis felt that performing large chunks of the actual play would not work so well on disc, and so he has instead fashioned a spoken narration, performed here with evident delight by Simon Callow, who throws himself into the part with such gusto that it’s hard not to be swept along by his wonderful characterisations. The score also contains several songs, sung by Roderick Williams and Elin Manahan Thomas, both of whom are on fine form. Williams’s performance of the opening organ-grinder’s song (“O Children, Open Your Arms To Me”) is really very touching indeed, with some ravishing pianissimo singing.
The real star of the recording, however, is very definitely Andrew Davis. Aside from writing the narration, he has also devised and recorded a suite of just the songs and orchestral interludes, which is ideal if you don’t quite fancy the idea of listening to the whole lot in one go. Moreover, he has even included three songs written by the composer originally attached to the project, Clive Carey. While they aren’t quite as imaginative as Elgar’s settings, they are pleasant enough, and offer an interesting appendix. The whole project has obviously been a labour of love for Davis, and his enthusiasm for this music shines through in every bar.
Coincidentally, Simon Callow is also the narrator on a second disc of wartime music from Elgar, this time with John Wilson conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra on the Somm label. Here Callow’s contribution is less extensive, limited to three pieces written to show solidarity with war-ravaged Belgium. Using texts by the Belgian poet, Emile Cammaerts, they provide an interesting range of musical responses to the Great War, from the early optimism of Carillon, to the more weary sounds of Une Voix dans le Désert, and finally the militaristic strains of Le Drapeau Belge, with its repeated refrain of “Black, yellow and red” referencing the colours of the Belgian flag. I hope I’ll be forgiven for saying that none of these pieces offers first-rate poetry, but again Callow’s performance is so commanding that one hardly notices, and he clearly relishes moments such as the opening “Sing, Belgians, Sing!” of Carillon.
Also included are rarities such as Polonia, an overture intended as a gesture for the Polish cause, incorporating quotations from pieces by Paderewski and Chopin, and the short but attractive Rosemary, alluding to Ophelia’s line in Act IV, Scene V of Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember”. Perhaps the most familiar pieces included are the rousing Sursum Corda, and a beautiful work for strings, harp and organ, Sospiri, which received its first performance eleven days after the outbreak of war, and was described by Elgar’s wife, Alice, as “lovely like a breath of peace on a perturbed world”. With excellent performances all-round, the disc is a great place to start if you’re looking to explore the lesser-known works of Elgar, and makes a fine companion to the Chandos recording.