Sunday 29 December 2019

Dramatic Elgar and rare Chadwick from BBC National Orchestra of Wales & Andrew Constantine on Orchid Classics

Elgar Falstaff, Chadwick Tam O'Shanter; BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Timothy West, Samuel West, Andrew Constantine; Orchid Classics
Elgar Falstaff, Chadwick Tam O'Shanter; BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Timothy West, Samuel West, Andrew Constantine; Orchid Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 December 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A dramatic version of Elgar's symphonic study alongside music by his New England contemporary

Do we actually need another recording of Sir Edward Elgar's symphonic study, Falstaff? Well, considering how the work seems to be still somewhat under appreciated when compared to the composer's other symphonic works, then perhaps we do, particularly one as vivid as this one. But there is twist.

Conductor Andrew Constantine and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have recorded Elgar's Falstaff for Orchid Classics, but it is on the discs twice. The second time as Elgar imagined it, as a purely orchestral work, the first time as a more dramatic entity with Elgar's music interleaved with scenes from Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 performed by Timothy West and Samuel West. The companion work is a piece by Elgar's American contemporary George Whitfield Chadwick, Tam O'Shanter.

British conductor Andrew Constantine was a name new to me. He won the first Donatella Flick Conducting Competition and studied at the Leningrad State Conservatory. Since 2004 he has been based in the USA and is currently music director of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra and of the Reading Symphony Orchestra.

Judging by this vividly detailed account of Elgar's 1913 work Constantine has a great love of the piece and understanding of Elgar's late style, and the BBC NOW responds brilliantly to him. The performance moves between the grandiloquence of Prince Hal's theme to the pawky humour, but still a gentleman, of Falstaff. And vividness of the orchestral detail very much reminds one of Richard Strauss' tone poems, and of course Elgar's music was much admired on the continent by admirers of Strauss', and the two are somewhat akin.
Elgar based his work on a finely crafted reading of excerpts from Shakespeare's play, and in one sense it is redundant to add the play itself, after all Elgar's music describes vividly the action of the play, but the work's relative lack of popularity as compared to Elgar's other works, would seem to imply that audiences have a difficulty getting to grips with it. So here we have the various episodes of Falstaff and Prince Hal, right through to Hal (as King Henry V) denying Falstaff, beautifully performed by father and son team, Timothy and Samuel West.

But placing music and spoken word together can be a risky business, with word often predominating and it says much for the brilliance and vividness of the playing here, that the two coalesce beautifully, complementing each other. The musical sections are long-breathed, including one 13 minute run and there are just four spoken interludes. Perhaps it is not the way I would listen to Falstaff every time, but it works well and brings the music into a different focus. And, as a bonus, you have the complete musical performance without spoken interludes on a second disc.

The companion piece on the disc is Tam O'Shanter by the American composer George Whitefield Chadwick. Chadwick was an almost exact contemporary of Elgar's, but though the two did meet once they never seem to have had anything like a positive relationship. Chadwick studied in New England and with Carl Reinecke in Leipzig, and then with Joseph Rheinberger in Munich. Returning to the USA, he became dean of the New England Conservatory. Though Chadwick has a reputation as a teacher, his substantial body of music is relatively unexplored.

Tam O'Shanter was written in 1915 and is very much in the European tone-poem mould, full of highly descriptive passages inspired by Burns. The music of Brahms and particularly Dvorak does not seem too far away, though influence of Richard Strauss seems less present here. Constantine and the orchestra make a great case for the piece, giving it a vividly vigorous performance which brings out all of Chadwick's lively descriptive detail. Certainly it deserves wider currency and makes you wonder about other works.

The Chadwick is preceded by a reading of the composer's introductory note to the work, in which the dramatic structure of the piece is explained lucidly by the American violinist Erik Chapman and the Scot, Billy Wiz.

The performances and the pairing on this disc make you interested in more. Having heard Constantine conduct Falstaff with BBC NOW, I would be keen to hear them in other Elgar symphonic works. Constantine and BBC NOW have already combined Elgar's Enigma Variations with Chadwick's Symphonic Sketches on an earlier Orchid Classics disc, so perhaps we can hope for more.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) - Falstaff, Symphonic Study in C minor (with spoken dialogue)
George Whitefield Chadwick (1854 -1931) - Tam O'Shanter (with spoken introduction)
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) - Falstaff, Symphonic Study in C minor
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Andrew Constantine (conductor)
Timothy West (Falstaff)
Samuel West (Prince Hal)
Erik Chapman, Billy Wiz (Chadwick spoken introduction)
Recorded Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 17-19 September 2018, Henry Wood Hall, London, 8 February 2018, Wathen Hall, St Paul Boys' School, Hammersmith, 17 December 2018
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC 100103 2CDs [71.14, 35.28]
Available from Amazon.

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