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Caractacus, Worcester Cathedral, Three Choirs Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Caractacus, Worcester Cathedral, Three Choirs Festival

Caractacus, Worcester Cathedral, Three Choirs Festival

Ancient Brits and Druids come to Worcester and set the nave echoing

Andrew Birrell after Fuseli: Caractacus at the tribunal of Claudius in Rome

“The text of Britain’s teaching, the message of the free…”. No, not the Last Night of the Proms or the Olympic Games ahead of time. This is the final chorus of Elgar’s concert-length cantata Caractacus, which was given a vigorous work-out in this star concert of the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral under Sir Andrew Davis. And before you start jeering and bringing up the problems on Britain’s streets, let me tell you that the choruses in this work are as brilliant as any in the language, and quite thrilling enough to persuade you that the message, however facile and inopportune, might just be true.

Caractacus, written in 1898, was Elgar’s last big work before the one that made him famous, the Enigma Variations, so it’s no surprise that it contains superb music. He was already over 40, and well enough known regionally to be commissioned by the Leeds Festival for a two-hour choral-orchestral work. The trouble is that that sort of commission, at that particular moment, was always likely to produce one of those great lumbering Victorian oratorios, and it duly did so. Caractacus is a story-work; but its narrative is thin and uninteresting. Against the advice of his clairvoyant son-in-law, Caractacus goes out to battle with the invading Romans, is defeated, captured and transported to Rome, where his disinterested pleading for his fellow captors impresses the Emperor Claudius sufficiently to save all their lives.

Elgar treated this nonsense partly as an excuse for a series of musings on his favourite Malvern Hills, where, on the summit of the so-called Herefordshire Beacon, there is an actual hill fort that was still in use in Roman times. So instead of portraying individual characters – Caractacus himself, his daughter Eigen, her lover/husband Orbin – he created a series of reflective tableaux and episodic dialogues that add up to nothing in particular, are not all that striking as music, and have little or no dramatic impulse. His ineptitude as a dramatist is brutally exposed in the final scene, in which Claudius, having given the Brits an unequivocal thumbs down, abruptly changes his mind and invites them to “dwell here in Rome by the Emperor’s side”. Meanwhile, the music itself barely changes, because Elgar is on a symphonic tack, not to be deflected. As music, it’s quite good; as theatre it hardly so much as begins.

5826 1Luckily, the subject also threw up a series of amazing choruses, each one better than the last, marvellously composed, superbly written for the voices. Dramatically empty they may be, but musically they are Elgar at his finest. There are choruses of Brits, choruses of Druids and Druidesses, choruses of Soldiers, Maidens, Roman Citizens, mostly indistinguishable in terms of drama or character, but wonderfully varied in movement and texture, consistently inventive, and – by the way – brilliantly orchestrated.

How did Elgar find such a devastating talent for choral writing? Perhaps it was from the experience of this same Three Choirs Festival, already venerable in his day and held every three years in his native Worcester. But most of the choral music he heard there will have been thin gruel compared to these Caractacus pieces. To find choral writing of comparable fire and energy you have to look at works like Wagner’s Meistersinger or Brahms’s German Requiem, and imagine the impact they must have had on this quick-learning thirtysomething Catholic church organist when he heard them in London or Germany in the 1880s and Nineties.

'The sexual wantonness eluded Elgar; his druidesses are rather ladylike in their ritual naughtiness'


And it isn’t only the energy. There’s delicacy and refinement as well. The Druid maidens dance round the sacred oak, let down their hair and bare their breasts. True, the sexual wantonness eluded Elgar. His druidesses are rather ladylike in their ritual naughtiness, but their music is delightful and could, incidentally, be danced to. An Elgar ballet might be hard to imagine (a couple of attempts exist). But there are moments in Caractacus when it could almost seem a lively possibility.

Andrew Davis (pictured above) threw everything at this music, with results that showed that condescending attitudes are no longer appropriate at the Three Choirs. The Festival Chorus itself is an amalgam of the actual cathedral choirs with a good deal of local stiffening. But Lesley Bellerby must be a superb choir-trainer, and with Davis’s enthusiasm and authority on the rostrum one might have been listening to a fully established semi-professional choir. The impact of that final jingoistic explosion – totally irrelevant, of course, to a bunch of albeit well-treated British prisoners a thousand miles south of the white cliffs – was irresistible: the Dream of Gerontius and Second Symphony rolled into one glorious outburst and stripped of the angst.

The solo work was perhaps less inspiring, partly because of the music, and not helped by balance problems in the echoing spaces of Worcester’s Transitional nave. It will probably sound better in the autumn Radio 3 broadcast. Peter Savidge was a steady, somewhat dry-toned Caractacus, and there was good support from Judith Howarth, Ben Johnson, Stephen Roberts and, especially, Brindley Sherratt, deputising at short notice in the small but crucial role of Claudius. But in the solo music one tended to listen to the orchestra, where Elgar was already a master, and the Philharmonia was in full flow.

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