Presto News - 26th January 2015
Andrew Davis conducts Elgar's King Olaf
Edward Elgar's reputation as a fine choral composer largely rests on oratorios such as The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles, but there are several other works that are performed much more rarely. This is particularly the case with a piece entitled Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, a largely unknown work by the 39-year old composer that is given a thrilling new recording in a disc due out next week.
This epic cantata sets a Longfellow poem relating the life and death of the Norse King Olaf, and his attempt to convert the people of the ancient land of 'Norroway' to Christianity by defeating Ironbeard, Thor's acolyte. After several unsuccessful attempts to find a bride, Olaf comes across Thyri, sister of King Svend. However, her condition for marriage is that he must recover some land taken from her previous husband. Olaf dutifully sets off to battle, but is fatally wounded, and dies.
I'm sure you can imagine how such a colourful story can have sparked Elgar's imagination, and indeed there are plenty of opportunities for rousing choruses. The part of Olaf is taken here by tenor Barry Banks, who sings heroically and negotiates Elgar's sometimes high-lying writing with ease and skill. The early section entitled “The Conversion”, a long dialogue between Olaf and Ironbeard, is kept alive by the committed singing of Banks, as well as the charismatic baritone of Alan Opie as Ironbeard.
I suppose it's appropriate that this Norse legend should be recorded by the Bergen Philharmonic, and under the expert guidance of ardent Elgarian Andrew Davis, they and the combined Norwegian choirs seem effortlessly at home with Elgar's music. In my opinion the chorus gets all the best music, from the work's atmospheric opening ('There is a wondrous book') to the excitingly vigorous 'I am the God Thor' and the delightfully skipping 'A Little Bird in the Air', sung as Thyri is introduced.
This leads into a lovely duet for soprano and tenor ('Thyri, my beloved'), tenderly sung by Banks and soprano Emily Birsan. My favourite part of the work, though, is undoubtedly the final tableau, “The Death of Olaf”. The music drops to the most hushed of tones, and the choir solemnly laments the falling of the hero ('King Olaf, woe to thee!'), followed by an epilogue that surely shows Elgar at his rousing best. In this section the chorus takes up perhaps the best-known part of the work, the unaccompanied 'As Torrents in Summer', which is sometimes performed and recorded on its own. This delicate, beautiful section is followed by the final passage ('Stronger than Steel'), containing some of Elgar's most stirring writing.
Moving from Norse folklore to that of England, the other work included here is The Banner of Saint George, written a year later, which details the eponymous hero's efforts to save the residents of Sylenë from a dragon that has unfortunately taken up residence nearby.
Although the text is largely dismissed nowadays as somewhat outdatedly patriotic, the piece laid claim to be Elgar's most popular choral work during his lifetime, and, like King Olaf, Saint George seems to have inspired some colourfully inventive moments, particularly the pleasingly virile music for George's first appearance, and a suitably stately epilogue celebrating his victory over the beast.
I'm not going to pretend that this has suddenly leapt into my list of favourite Elgar pieces, but it's entertaining enough, and reminded me in places of the “Britain, ask of thyself” movement from the Coronation Ode. So, if you're a fan of Elgar but haven't yet explored some of the choral works that are somewhat off the beaten track, then this is an ideal disc, with enthusiastically engaging performances from everyone.
Elgar: King Olaf & The Banner of Saint George
Emily Birsan (soprano), Barry Banks (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Collegium Musicum Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Sir Andrew Davis
Presto CD – Argo
Chris introduces the latest batch of Presto CDs – a rather American-flavoured selection featuring Aaron Copland and Morton Feldman among others, though with Tallis from King's College and Thomas Trotter's Reubke and Liszt to fly the flag for this side of the Atlantic!
Presto Recommends – Georges Bizet
Katherine listens to some recordings by Georges Bizet, known primarily for his opera Carmen - wildly popular today, but a humiliating flop at its premiere - and for The Pearl Fishers, with its show-stopping duet for tenor and bass, Au fond du temple saint.
Bizet's gifts extended beyond writing for the stage, however, with numerous songs, a small body of rather Fauré-esque piano music and a delightful symphony that he wrote at the age of only seventeen!
You can browse through all Katherine’s choices here.
James Longstaffe - email@example.com
26th January 2015
Imogen Cooper plays Schumann
Imogen Cooper (piano)
This is the second volume in Imogen Cooper's Schumann series, in which she brings her virtuosity and poetic touch to the repertoire of one of the central German romantic composers. This album is an implicit dialogue between Robert and Clara, with the presence of words sensed at every point: from the Lied-like melody in the love duet that is Robert’s ‘Romanze’, to the Humoreske, an imaginary song inspired by Clara.
Scriabin & Medtner: Piano Concertos
Yevgeny Sudbin (piano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton
Yevgeny Sudbin’s recordings of Medtner’s first and second piano concertos were widely admired, and his recordings of Scriabin have similarly garnered universal acclaim. Here he takes on two more concertos by these composers, with the eminent support of the Bergen Philharmonic and their chief conductor Andrew Litton.
Mozart: Keyboard Music Volume 7
Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
In Volume Seven of his internationally praised Mozart cycle, Kristian Bezuidenhout includes two works influenced by Wolfgang's 1778 stay in Paris: the grandly proportioned Sonata in A minor, K310 and the dazzling Variations in C on 'Lison dormait', K264.
Stenhammar: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2
Between 1894 and 1916 Stenhammar composed seven string quartets, one of which was withdrawn. This release concludes the first complete cycle on CD, previous volumes of which have been greeted with much acclaim.
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Philharmonia Zürich, Fabio Luisi
Berlioz's brilliantly orchestrated score presents a major challenge to the conductor and every single orchestra’s musician. This first record from the new label Philharmonia Records presents a live recording from September 2013 of this symphonic milestone out of the Opernhaus Zürich, performed by the Philharmonia Zürich under Fabio Luisi.
My Life Is An Opera: Roberto Alagna
Roberto Alagna (tenor), London Orchestra, Yvan Cassar
Roberto Alagna is an acclaimed French tenor with 60 opera roles in his repertoire. This disc presents fifteen arias and duos that reflect the significant moments in his life and career. Recorded last September in London, it includes such favourites as Che faro senza Euridice, Donna non vidi mai, Vesti la Giubba and La Danza.
CPE Bach: Symphonies
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Rebecca Miller
One of the many children of JS Bach, CPE Bach always lived in his father’s shadow. How can such an unknown be considered a gamechanger? A listen to his music reveals just why - it constantly shifts, with wild changes of direction and colour: a fascinating link between the music of his father and Joseph Haydn.
Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer
Bryn Terfel (Holländer), Anja Kampe (Senta), Matti Salminen (Daland), Marco Jentzsch (Erik), Philharmonia Zurich, Alain Altinoglu
This is the first time in the 25 years of Bryn Terfel’s work as an opera singer that he has recorded this milestone in Wagner’s work. Bryn is surrounded by a stellar cast: Matti Salminen personifies Daland, with Anja Kampe as Senta. This exceptional recording was made at the Zurich opera house in January 2013.
Blu-ray version also available here.
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