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Engraving of statue of Caractacus by John Henry Foley
27 Aug 2011

Caractacus,Three Choirs Festival, Worcester

Superb performance of Elgar’s epic oratorio Caractacus at the The Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral.

Edward Elgar: Caractacus

Peter Savidge: Caractacus, Judith Howarth: Eigen, Ben Jihnson: Orbin, Brindley Sherratt: Claudius, Stephen Roberts: Arch Druid/Bard. The Three Choirs Festival Chorus, The Philharmonia Orchestra, Andrew Davis: conductor. Worcester Cathedral, Three Choirs Festival, 10th August 2011.

Above: Engraving of statue of Caractacus by John Henry Foley


The Three Choirs Festival was founded some 300 years ago, bringing together the choirs of three great cathedral cities — Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. The Three Choirs epitomize all that is great and good about the English choral tradition. It’s a festival which no-one seriously interested in the genre can miss. The atmosphere is unique, and immeasurably enhances appreciation of the music.

Edward Elgar was very much part of the Three Choirs Festival. He attended without fail, and his music has figured prominently in every Festival for over 100 years. He was a Worcester man by birth, so it was a very special experience to hear this performance of Caractacus in Worcester Cathedral, where Elgar himself would have heard it.

Caractacus is an epic oratorio about an ancient Briton King called Caractacus. Legend has it that he was defeated by the Romans, making his last stand on a hill now known as the Herefordshire Beacon. It’s a spectacular spot, commanding a panoramic view over the Malvern Hills. Ancient fortifications can still be seen on its summit.

History co-exists with the present of Elgar’s own time in Caractacus. “Watchmen alert!” sing the massed choir. Right from the start, Elgar’s Caractacus begins defiantly. “The Roman hordes have girdled in our British coast”. Then Caractacus takes up the call. “Watchmen alert! The King is here!”. The Britons are facing a crisis situation, for soon Caractacus and his men will be taken as slaves to Rome and their ancient Druid religion gradually obliterated.

In 1898, the British Empire was at its peak. Basking in the certainties of their manifest destiny, Victorian Imperialists didn’t register the irony that they were themselves doing to others what the Romans Imperialists did to their ancestors. In the last big chorus, Elgar’s text specifically mentions “the flag of Britain (and) its triple crosses”, ie the Union Flag which didn’t exist until Stuart times, and British dominion “O’er peoples undiscover’d, inlands we cannot know”. Hearing the truculence of this text makes one realize what a shock the 1914-18 war would be to Elgar, and to the certainties of Empire.

Nonetheless, Elgar’s music is exquisite, overcoming the often lugubrious text. He was a Worcester man at heart, who hiked and cycled in the woods around him. Caractacus is very much inspired by the spirit of the landscape around him in the Malverns. The text may be violent, but the music is gloriously pastoral for the most part. The “Woodland Interlude” that begins Scene III is short, but its verdant loveliness pervades the entire work. The Druids worshipped the forces of nature. Dense woodlands were sacred to them just as Worcester Cathedral is to the modern faithful. For Elgar, nature and landscape were almost sacred too. He wrote to a friend (who appears encoded in the Enigma Variations), “the trees are singing my music- or have I sung theirs?”

“The air is sweet, the sky is calm” sings Caractacus, “all nature round is breathing balm…O spirits of the hill surround, with waving wings this holy ground”. Peter Savidge’s firm intonation carries authority naturally, without being forced. His diction is so clear that it cuts through the choirs, decisively. He creates Caractacus’s character with warmth and sensitivity, more faithful, perhaps to the spirit of the Druids than to High Victorian arrogance. Just listening to Savidge, you can understand why Claudius, the Roman Emperor, was so impressed by Caractacus’s moral strength that he treated the Britons with respect. Savidge’s O my warriors! was expansive, yet surprisingly tender. Truly “a freeborn chieftain and a people free ...(whose) soul remains unshackled still”.”

Elgar’s forte is the orchestral extension of text, so performance stands or falls on orchestra and conductor. Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia were superlative, technically brighter and sharper than the London Symphony Chorus were for Richard Hickox on their recording almost 20 years ago. Davis delineates the underlying themes so precisely that the music seems to come alive, whispering meaning much as the trees the Druids worshipped whispered meaning to them. Tight dynamics built drama into what might otherwise be fairly stolid Victorian melodrama. When this performance is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 3rd September make sure to listen, because this is the new benchmark. Hopefully, a recording may be made available. Worcester, and the Three Choirs Festival are sacred ground to Elgar enthusiasts.

What makes the Three Choirs Festival unique, however, is the quality of the choral singing, which is the whole raison d’être behind this 300 year old tradition. Although at moments it wasn’t easy to make out all the text, the fault lies not with the voices nor with the choirmaster but with the text itself. English is a language which lends itself to vowels rather than consonants, so it’s easy to approximate vocally, which is why it’s near universal today. There were many Caractacus figures in Gaul and in the lands of the Franks, so in theory there might be similar works in French or German, but they’d sound completely different. The relative imprecision of English makes the Triumphal March sympathetic. The Britons are a ragged bunch of wild men, very different to the sophisticated Roman Court, yet they win out since Caractacus is a level-headed fellow.

Brindley Sherratt sang Claudius with such rich resonance that he brought out the depth in the Roman’s personality. The Romans may be the enemy, but Sherratt shows what a fundamentally civilized man Claudius is, for he can show mercy without compromising his power. Stephen Roberts Arch Druid/Bard was also deeply impressive. Judith Howarth reprised Eigen, Caractacus’s daughter. Her voice is in excellent form, still pure and sweet though it’s been 20 years since she sang it with Richard Hickox. In At eve to the greenwood she managed the sudden leap up the register with aplomb. Even better was her When the glow of the evening. Ben Johnson sang Orbin, the Druid whom Eigen is in love with. Johnson’s very young and this is a fairly demanding part, so he did very well indeed. His bright tone is matched by good Italianate looks and an expressive face which will stand him in good stead in opera.

This performance of Elgar’s Caractacus from the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 after the Proms end in mid September.

Anne Ozorio

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