About a month ago Orchard Classics released a rather idiosyncratic album organized around Edward Elgar’s Opus 68 “Falstaff,” his major venture into the genre of the tone poem. (Readers may note that the above hyperlink leads to the amazon.com.uk Web site. As of this writing, there is no sign of the recording on Amazon.com; but payment is just as easy as it is on the American site. Delivery, however, may take a bit longer.) The performance is by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Andrew Constantine. There is also a “bonus track” providing George Whitefield Chadwick’s much shorter tone poem “Tam O’Shanter” as an “encore.”
As tone poems go, “Falstaff” provides an account as rich in narrative qualities as can be found in many of the tone poems of Richard Strauss. The title character is the “fat knight” that appears in both of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, serving as companion to Prince Hal (who will become Henry V at the conclusion of the second of the two plays). The music is structured in four sections; and Elgar himself provided an outline of all of the episodes in an “analytical essay” that he wrote for The Musical Times following his completion of the score. That outline may have appeared in print prior to the music’s first performance; and, more often than not, it now shows up on the track listings for recordings of the composition. The essay itself even explains how there are specific themes to identify both Falstaff and Hal:
from the Wikipedia page for Elgar’s “Falstaff”
Constantine, however, seems to have decided that Elgar’s background material was (in the words of the accompanying booklet) “initially, hard to grasp.” As a result, he came to the conclusion that a presentation of the performance could be spruced up with a good paint job and perhaps a bit of perfume. (Hopefully, a few Shakespeare lovers will catch the reference to King John!) He thus recruited Timothy West and Samuel West to deliver some of the passages of dialogue between Falstaff and Hal, adding them as interjections into Elgar’s score. Similarly, he preceded the “Tam O’Shanter” track with a “background explanation” taken from Chadwick’s own words (delivered by Erik Chapman), along with excerpts from the Robert Burns poem that inspired the music, read by Billy Wiz.
At this point I should probably make a personal disclaimer. Whenever I attend a concert, I find it hard to resist the urge to cringe whenever a performer picks up a microphone before beginning her/his performance. These usually amount to well-intentioned efforts to provide a bit of explanation before the performance itself begins. These days, however, pre-concert talks tend to be getting more frequent and usually far richer in context. Unless there has not been such a talk and/or any explanatory information in the program book, my tendency is to grumble to myself that the performer should just “get on with it” and say what (s)he has to say through the music! As Igor Stravinsky said when CBS insisted that he “introduce” the music he had composed for “The Flood” on their telecast, “I don’t want to tell you more; I only want to play you more.”
Curiously, Constantine’s album consists of two CDs. The second presents “Falstaff” as Elgar meant it to be performed, without any verbal interjections. This is certainly less annoying than having to sit through the verbal intrusions on the first CD. However, while Chadwick’s interpretation is capable enough, it certainly does nothing to woo me away from the wonderful remastering job on the recording of Elgar himself conducting this music as part of The Elgar Edition recordings. (“Tam O’Shanter” is not included on the second CD, since all of the verbiage preceded the track on the first CD.) Elgar makes it clear that his own capacity for delivering narrative can stand up far more than adequately without assistance from any actors delivering Shakespeare’s words!