Edward Elgar's Caractacus op 35 (1898), conducted by Martyn Brabbins, from Hyperion. This is an important release. The recording by Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra, from 1993 on Chandos has dominated the market for decades. The Charles Groves recording on vinyl is long out of print, now only available in fragments in the Warner set. Hickox is the market leader, too, because he's good, but Brabbins could raise the bar again : a livelier, more animated performance, due perhaps to the fact that Brabbins is conducting the Orchestra of Opera North. Caractacus gets a bad press because it is very much a product of its time, a grand oratorio for massed chorus, burdened down by the libretto, by Henry Arbuthnot Acworth, an Indian Civil Service official, who had retired to Malvern, who had provided the text for Elgar's King Olaf two years before. Brabbins approaches Caractacus as music drama. The performances he gets from the orchestra, The Hudddersfield Choral Society and an excellent group of soloists, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Roland Wood, Christopher Purves and Alistair Miles, are so vivid that they express the adventurous spirit behind the clumsiness of the text.
Caractacus is an epic oratorio about an ancient Briton King called
Caractacus — his tribe were a segment of a Britain populated from time immemorial by Celts, Picts, Angles, Saxons and other migrants to come. Legend has it that he was defeated by the Romans, making his last stand on a hill now known as the Herefordshire Beacon. It’s a spectacular spot, commanding a panoramic view over the Malvern Hills. Ancient fortifications can still be seen on its summit. In 1898, the British Empire was at its peak, so Caractacus could be remodelled as a symbol of pride. Basking in the certainties of their manifest destiny, Victorian Imperialists didn’t register the irony that they were themselves doing to others what the Roman Imperialists did to their ancestors. In the last big chorus, Elgar’s text specifically mentions “the flag of Britain (and) its triple crosses entwined”, ie the Union Flag which didn’t exist until Stuart times, and British dominion “O’er peoples undiscover’d, inlands we cannot know”. In Elgar's Caractacus, history co-exists with the present of Elgar’s own time. “Watchmen alert!” sing the massed choir.
Nonetheless, Elgar’s music is much more than bellicose jingoism, overcoming the often lugubrious text. He was a Worcester man at heart, who hiked and cycled in the woods around him. Caractacus is very much inspired by the spirit of the landscape around him in the Malverns. The text may be violent, but the music is gloriously pastoral for the most part. The “Woodland Interlude” that begins Scene III is short, but its verdant loveliness pervades the entire work. The Druids worshipped the forces of nature. Dense woodlands were sacred to them just as Worcester Cathedral is to the modern faithful. For Elgar, nature and landscape were almost sacred too. He wrote to a friend (who appears encoded in the Enigma Variations), “the trees are singing my music- or have I sung theirs?” “The air is sweet, the sky is calm” sings Caractacus, “all nature round is breathing balm…O spirits of the hill surround, with waving wings this holy ground”. Elgar’s forte is the orchestral extension of text, so performance stands or falls on orchestra and conductor.
Caractacus works well on purely musical terms, the surging sweep in the orchestral line taken up by the chorus and soloists. Brabbins delineates the various leitmotifs, so evocatively that the music seems to come alive, whispering invisible meaning much in the way that the Druids believed trees whispered meaning to them. Tight dynamics build drama into what might otherwise be fairly stolid melodrama, the recurring themes clearly defined so they give coherence. The theme behind the phrase "Go forth, O King, to conquer" suggests the confidence of the late Victorian era which Elgar could capture so well. In the section The Spirit of the Hill ("Rest, weary monarch.... the night is falling fast away,") the hush of the chorus suggests trees in a forest, from which the Arch Druid (Christopher Purves) will lead the chorus, discreet orchestral colours illuminating the dark, before the vigorous rhythms of "Leap, leap to light, my brand of light!" (Caractacus, Roland Wood.). As Caractacus sets forth, the music surges with grandeur, creating contrast with the Woodland Interlude.Eigen (Elizabeth Llewellyn) and Orbin (Elgan Llŷr Thomas) represent youth and renewal, hence the pastoral delicacy in the orchestration around them. Yet the expansive theme invades Orbin's lines "A warrior, now, for Britain's weal". He, too, is off to battle. In brief respite, Eigen and her maidens contemplate the Malverh Hills before the return of Caractacus. "O my warriors ". Now the depth in Wood's deep baritone suggest resolution, despite defeat.
As the captives embark on the Severn, figures in the orchestra suggest at once the flow of the river and a slow funeral march, which morphs into the Processional Music as the captives enter Rome, its might suggested by vaguely "oriental" percussion and relentlessly pounding figures, so powerfully delineated by Brabbins that the chorius seems whipped into frenzy (for they are Romans, after all). The lines of Claudius (Alastair Miles) are more measured, low woodwinds underlining the authority in the voice. The depth in Roland Wood's baritone approaches Miles's bass : an interesting detail which emphasizes the idea that both men are equals. Quixotically, defeat becomes triumph. "All the nations shall stand and hymn the praise of Britain, like brothers, hand in hand !" Elgar's Caractacus is neither historic truth, nor logic, but it is rousing music.