Editor’s Choice: Vocal & Chroal, June 2015

So obsessed were the white anglo-saxon protestant citizens of late Victorian England with the “punishment of wickedness and vice, and the maintenance of true religion and virtue” (to use Thomas Cranmer’s phrase) that they were content even for a talented Roman Catholic like Edward Elgar to feed them stories that reinforced the prevailing ‘muscular Christianity’.

St George and the dragon was an obvious subject, not least when Queen Victoria celebrated her diamond jubilee in 1897. For The Banner of Saint George Elgar was provided with poetry that was far from accomplished, but he used his considerable skill in orchestration to create evocative soundscapes, especially as he depicts the slaying of the dragon. On the other hand, there are times (as in the epilogue) when I can’t help wondering whether Elgar has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. In any event, Sir Andrew Davis and his forces give a rousing and fully committed account of a work that was to become immensely popular in the composer’s lifetime. Clearly rescuing damsels in distress appealed to the choral societies of the time.

Of far greater interest is a work published the year before: Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf. This adventurous score prefigures the triumphs that were to come a few years later in The Dream of Gerontius and the Enigma Variations. Inspired by Mendelssohn (and no doubt Wagner), Elgar makes liberal use of leitmotifs and vivid orchestral colours in setting a sanitised version of the saga from Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn of King Olaf bringing Christianity to Norway. 

The use of forces from Bergen is particularly appropriate in this recording, not only because of the Norwegian subject matter of King Olaf, but also because Longfellow’s recounting of the tale is due to his friendship with Ole Bull, a virtuoso violinist and composer who championed the cause of Norway’s independence from Sweden. 

Davis’s energetic direction elicits wonderfully vibrant playing from the Bergen Philharmonic and the massed choirs sing excellent English with enviable diction. All three soloists in King Olaf are first rate. Alan Opie is suitably malevolent as Ironbeard, whilst Barry Banks makes a clean-cut yet passionate Olaf. Emily Birsan acquits her various roles admirably. Chandos’s engineering is up to its usual high standards, making this a release not only for diehard Elgarians, but for all who enjoy
great choral music.

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