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 Recording of the Week  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.

Andrew Davis
Andrew Davis

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

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC