ELGAR Falstaff. Orchestral Songs
This is Andrew Davis’s third recording of Elgar’s Falstaff. It is, not to beat about the bush, a superbly perceptive traversal, evincing a strength of purpose, emotional candour and meticulous attention to detail that give it the edge over its notable predecessors featuring the New Philharmonia (Lyrita, 9/75) and BBC SO (Warner Apex, 8/05). Right from the outset there’s an irresistibly idiomatic swagger, acuity and temperament that put me in mind of both the composer’s own miraculous 1931 account and the classic 1964 Barbirolli, Shakespeare’s fat knight effortlessly springing to life before our very eyes in all his complexity and, at the last, frailty (the wistful closing pages are enormously touching here).
Insights abound, among them the humorous depiction of Falstaff dozing off prior to the first dream interlude (memorable contributions from bassoon and tuba); the thrilling bite of marcato lower strings as Sir John and his motley band of recruits are ‘soundly peppered’ on the battlefield (track 6, at 1'45" and again at 2'02"); those truly con fuoco violins and violas from two after fig 109 (track 9, 0'17"); and the glowering pomp and spectacle of King Henry V’s coronation, where the Grandioso reprise of Hal’s theme at fig 127 (track 10, 2'26") hits home in properly devastating fashion. No doubt about it: as Falstaffs go, this impressively engineered newcomer demands to be heard.
Elsewhere, the baritone Roderick Williams is at his eloquent best in an attractive selection of orchestral songs, the standout items being ‘Twilight’ from the Op 59 set (an utterly spellbinding setting from 1909 of a poem by Gilbert Parker), the passionate Op 60 diptych from 1910 (to words by a certain Pietro d’Alba, Elgar’s own pseudonym), and the softly elegiac ‘Pleading’ (a 1908 setting of Arthur Salmon’s poem). We also get one of the composer’s japes in the shape of the enjoyably bonkers Smoking Cantata (1919), a 40-second setting of a request to house guests from his good friend Edgar Speyer (‘Kindly, kindly, kindly do not SMOKE in the hall or staircase!’). In addition, we’re treated to a sublimely atmospheric rendering of the two purely orchestral excerpts from the 1901 incidental music for Grania and Diarmid. All told, a terrific anthology, and absolutely not to missed.