The conductor Martyn Brabbins and Hyperion have given us the second complete recording of Elgar’s 1898 cantata Caractacus. It’s been more than 25 years since the first recording by Richard Hickox on Chandos (1994). Caractacus is an uneven work but possesses enough moments of raw power and pastoral beauty to make it indispensable to lovers of Elgar.
Brabbins, now sporting a beard (pictured), has long been attentive to English music: his recent recording of A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams made an excellent showing in an already strong field. Crucial to that success was the excellence of his soloists, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Marcus Farnsworth. In Brabbins’s Caractacus, however, the performance of the soloists is less uniform.
Roland Wood’s singing of the title role is marred by an excessive wobble, especially in his opening aria in Scene I, “Watchmen, alert! the King is here”. Further into the recording, Wood’s singing improved so much I almost forgot his jarring entrance, but not entirely. In the great Scene V lament, “O my warriors, tell me truly,” Woods delivers some spectacular singing especially in his higher register. The other soloists are quite good. Elizabeth Llewellyn is back with Brabbins as the king’s daughter Eigen and sings with a sensitivity matched to the setting – the Malvern Hills where the Druids celebrate their faith. The tenor voice of Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Eigen’s fiancé Orbin is particularly convincing as the bard caught between the Druids and his respect for Caractacus.
Christopher Purves handles the dual roles of the Arch-Druid and A Bard with a steady and expressive voice. Alastair Miles, who was Caractacus on the Hickox recording, sings the Roman emperor Claudius with complete authority.
Among the vocalists, the Huddersfield Choral Society is the outstanding factor in making this performance worth owning. Not only can every word be discerned but also the shades of meaning urged by conductor Brabbins. The Orchestra of Opera North, too, does all Brabbins asks of them, reminding the listener that at this stage in his career Elgar was more a master of the orchestra than the voice. Enigma Variations was two years away and The Dream of Gerontius three. The musical gap between Caractacus and Gerontius is very large.
The most memorable music in Caractacus lies in the two often-performed orchestral pieces – the Woodland Interlude of Scene III and the Triumphal March of Scene V. Compared with Elgar’s own 1934 recording, Brabbins strangely underplays the Woodland Interlude but more than matches the composer’s recording, from the same year, of the Triumphal March.