Friday, 29 January 2016

Gustav Holst's Falstaff - At the Boar's Head

John Tomlinson, Philip Langridge.  Felicity Palmer, Elise Ross and David Wilson-Johnson. the greatest English singers of their time, all still young and vigorously in their prime. An ideal way into Holst's At the Boar's Head (1925)  on BBC Radio 3 HERE.  The voices absolutely matter in this cheerful one-act opera, which springs from Shakespeare's Henry IV and in particular the scene at the Boar's Head tavern. Voices utterly dominate, since Holst was inspired by the text in the plays, which he read while enjoying the score of John Playford's The English Dancing Master and transcripts of folk tunes collected by Cecil Sharp. The words seem to come alive in his imagination. as though, as he said, the music replicated the plays. This context shapes the opera  which predicates on the interplay of different voices and on the syntax of speech. Thus orchestral links are minimal, and oriented towards sturdy dances. David Atherton and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra don't have a great deal to do but mark the lively counterpoint and pace.  But what wonderful singing - sharply articulated, lively, perfect diction and mastery of tongue-twisting lines, such as would have thrilled the audience of a play with incidental music.  The dialogue betweem Tomlinson's Falstaff and Langridge's Prince Hal is close to ideal.

"Bye the bye", Holst wrote to Jane Johnson, "Have you ever tried declaiming 'Shall packhorses  and Hollow pampered jades Which cannot go but thirty mile a day Compare with Caesars and Cannibals and Trojan Greeks  Nay, rather damn them with King Cereberus and let the welkin roar". But at the premieres in Manchester and Golders Green, audiences were not amused.  As Imogen Holst wrote "Listeners felt cheated, for as soon as they got hold of a tune, it woud be snatched away from them, and woven, with the utmost cunning, into a restlessly changing pattern that baffled the ear." yet Holst was following Shakespeare, if not to the letter but in the spirit of the play. "Not one syllable had been distorted", she wrote " from its natural rhythm and inflection for the sake of fitting in the tunes. And each word came through clearly, for the orchestration was so light that it resembled 'a succession of pin pricks!"  

Fortunately now we can listen to At the Boar's Head without expecting a musical, and appreciate it for what it is. 

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