Slowly but surely, Elgar is penetrating the consciousness of music-lovers beyond these shores, helped by a few enthusiasts who’ve persuaded orchestras to take on his music. Daniel Barenboim is the keenest and most distinguished of them. He’s been championing Elgar’s music since the 1970s and has recorded both symphonies, the Enigma Variations and the Dream of Gerontius with his orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin. Their latest Elgar CD offers Elgar’s hugely popular song-cycle Sea Pictures and his great tone-poem Falstaff.
Why has Elgar exported so poorly up to now? It may because listeners overseas don’t know how to place him. They can’t relish him for his quirky Englishness because his music is too audibly linked to the sumptuous German romanticism of Wagner and Strauss. And yet there is something stubbornly individual in the music, which could be dubbed "Englishness". Nowhere is this dichotomy more vividly revealed than in “Falstaff”, which is gorgeously Straussian in its pictorial exactness, yet quintessentially English in its portrayal of the “fat knight” who strides through three Shakespeare plays.
On the level of orchestral wizardry, this piece beats even the Enigma Variations. There are countless moments where Elgar conjures extraordinary sounds to evoke strange worlds of feeling, like the “antique” sound of the interlude where Falstaff sinks into nostalgic reverie in his friend's orchard, or the moment when he falls into a dream-laden stupor. More importantly, Elgar catches the complexity of the subject’s character. His Falstaff is very different to the unscrupulous dissolute seducer of Verdi’s opera, which was based on Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor”. Elgar wanted a different sort of Falstaff, rumbustious but without even a hint of lechery, so he focuses on the more interesting figure who appears in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. This is the Falstaff who befriends the young Prince Hal, goes on various escapades with him, becomes more coarse and cynical, and is finally dumped by Hal when he is crowned Henry V. Falstaff dies literally of a broken heart, a sad ending evoked with heart-breaking poignancy in this piece.
On the face of it, this recording ought to be a winner. The piece makes virtuoso demands on the orchestra, and the Berlin Staatskapelle rises to the challenge magnificently, making Elgar’s extraordinary orchestral colours stand out with startling vividness. Barenboim gives an exciting edge to the narrative, pushing it forwards at a cracking pace. But this may be why I found the performance more gripping than moving. I kept wishing Barenboim would linger over the nostalgic episodes in the orchard, and generally just give us more time to savour the rare moments of stillness. And though the playing is pictorially vivid, it’s not lyrically as generous as it could be. The big tune at the very beginning just didn’t seem big enough. The recording of Sea Pictures is actually more moving. Of course the English diction of Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča isn’t going to please a native speaker at every single moment, but it’s extraordinarily good nonetheless, and the depth of tone and sheer expressivity she brings to the songs is thrilling.
Sea Pictures / Falstaff is out now on the Decca label