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As if Andrew Davis hadn’t done enough to promote Elgar through his 70th-birthday public re-evaluations of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom, now he has turned his attention to King Olaf, premiered in 1896 and – with The Light of Life and Caractacus – the most important of Elgar’s compositions before the Enigma Variations of 1899. inheriting an enthusiasm for the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from his mother, Elgar had already set some of it to music. King Olaf, which was already in his mind, fitted the bill for a choral work commissioned for the North Staffordshire Music Festival. Elgar recruited retired civil servant Henry Arbuthnot Acworth to shorten and sanitise Longfellow’s somewhat blood-soaked saga of the Norwegian king who founded Trondheim (Nidaros) and converted some of the Norse lands to Christianity, garlanding the libretto with an appropriately muscular Christian emphasis.

The sequence of scenes from Olaf’s life begins with the routing of the Norse gods Odin and Thor through the defeat of their earthly representative, Ironbeard. in a trajectory not dissimilar to the second act of Wagner’s Parsifal, the central scenes depict the hero’s problems with women: an undiplomatic marriage to the deceased Ironbeard’s daughter Gudrun results in a wedding-chamber attempted murder; Olaf moves on to woo Queen Sigrid of Svithiod (southern Sweden), but she refuses to convert to Christianity, and, embittered, flees Olaf’s wrath; a more promising union presents itself in Thyri, a refugee bride of King Burislaf of Wendland (Pomerania) – but the price of her consent to wedlock with Olaf is a quest to avenge her treatment by Burislaf and to secure the return of her confiscated lands, which results in Olaf’s death in battle. in the work’s epilogue, the focus shifts sharply to an affirmative reflection on the power of Christian conversion and the light of God in Christ.

In King Olaf, as in so much of Elgar’s music, one cannot but marvel at the largely self-taught composer’s instinct for, and skill at orchestration. True, the influence of Wagner is felt every bit as strongly as in Gerontius, not least in the work’s closing moments, which are as spiritually redemptive as the end of Parsifal; the vigorous battle scenes sometimes have a Slavic flavour of the kind found in the operas of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov; the gossamer melodies of the Ballad of Thyri could be ‘serious’ Sullivan, and the ‘Stronger than steel’ epilogue is as stirringly evocative as a great Parry anthem – no wonder that, in his Summary of the History and Development of European Music (1904), Parry hailed Elgar as ‘a new light of exceptional brilliancy’. But whatever the influences, King Olaf, like Blackpool rock, is Elgar through and through.

For his soloists, who combine character parts with narrative tasks, Davis has chosen seasoned opera singers – this is a job where, given the idiom of the Victorian libretto, the slightest hint of self-consciousness or parody would torpedo the whole enterprise. But the ardent and energetic Barry Banks (Olaf), the sonorous Alan Opie (Ironbeard) and the characterful Emily Birsan (the would-be brides) bring utter conviction and complete commitment to their roles; the combined Norwegian choirs sing in faultless English, while Davis leads the Bergen Symphony Orchestra with unerring sensitivity and nuanced conducting. The bonus on CD2 is The Banner of St George (1897), at one time Elgar’s most famous and popular work. The verdict nowadays is: clunking, overwrought libretto by Shapcott Wensley (‘Hark! Tis the ringing hoof of steed’), nul points; Elgar’s music, dix points. Pretend you can’t hear the Norwegian choruses’ impeccable diction …

GRAEME KAY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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