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Elgar: The Starlight Express - Davis

Elgar: The Starlight Express - Davis

Chandos  CHSA 5111 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Elgar, Edward: The Starlight Express Op. 78, Suite from 'The Starlight Express'
Carey, Clive: Three songs from 'The Starlight Express'

Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Simon Callow (narrator)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)


The Starlight Express was adapted from a book by Algernon Blackwood, A Prisoner in Fairyland, for a theatre production in the West End during the First World War, with music by Sir Edward Elgar. Combining the usually contrasting elements of fairytale and melodrama, The Starlight Express depicts the fantasy world inhabited by a group of children, who possess a magical ‘starlight’ quality that has been lost by the adults around them. This is the most comprehensive recorded version of The Starlight Express to date, based on a new score prepared by the Elgar Edition, which has been adapted by the conductor Sir Andrew Davis.

Our recording includes, in place of the play, a detailed account of the story, penned by the conductor Sir Andrew Davis better to reflect the original book and our pattern of speech today. ‘All the music, excepting the songs and interludes, was designed as melodrama, and in some cases it is meaningless on its own’, explains Sir Andrew, continuing: ‘I have therefore taken the bold step of writing a narrative which is based partly on the play and partly on A Prisoner in Fairyland.’

Our narrator is the actor Simon Callow, known to an international audience for his roles in films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shakespeare in Love. Callow was delighted to be approached, as he already knows and loves this music, having delivered the narrative in a specially recorded concert performance of the incidental music, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2007. The incidental music, complete with melodramatic passages which work in conjunction with the narrative, occupies all of Disc 1 and continues onto Disc 2. Then we have an extended suite of freestanding orchestral movements and songs.

As a bonus, we have included three songs which link directly to this work. When a staged version of Blackwood’s book was first proposed, in 1914, another young composer, Clive Carey, was commissioned to compose the incidental music; but the outbreak of war forced the cancellation of the original production. When the plans were next revived, Elgar was approached, and he enthusiastically completed the score. However, Clive Carey had already composed three songs, but they were never included in the final production. They have been orchestrated by Sir Andrew Davis for this recording, and are heard here for the very first time.

Our recording of The Starlight Express is performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis with two internationally acclaimed soloists: the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and baritone Roderick Williams.

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Review by John Miller - November 13, 2012

Over the years, there have been a number of recordings of suites based on the melodrama 'The Starlight Express' written by Violet Pearn (1890-1947) with music by Sir Edward Elgar. London audiences of 1915 gave enthusiastic support to the play, and the music was well received. However, the story was dismissed by critics as "preachy and pretentious", a "delicate fancy" turned into a "heavy sermon". After just 40 performances the play closed ahead of schedule, partly hampered by ridiculous costumes and terrible scenery. Also, possibly 'The Starlight Express' had a message of thinly disguised pacifism which went beyond wartime escapism, and would have been deeply unsettling for the Establishment at the start of the First World War. Its rival, Barry's 'Peter Pan', however, enjoyed a long and successful run. Its excusably violent but jolly pirates were usurped by children and fairies, and this struck a more appropriate triumphalist tone for a wartime audience. Unlike The 'Starlight Express', 'Peter Pan' had a good, clear story line and character development, rather than using its characters to carry philosophical messages.

Elgar was certainly drawn to Algernon Blackwood's play 'A Prisoner in Fairyland', which was the basis for Violet Pearn's play. The storyline and its author’s sympathies – an identification with childhood, reverence for patterns and processes in the natural environment, and a sense of otherworldly mysticism – immediately struck a chord with the 58-year-old composer. Happily diverted from the depressing bleakness of wartime London, Elgar threw himself heart-and-soul into the project, the closest he came to writing an opera. The termination of the play was a disappointment for him, particularly so because the war opposed the message of universal empathy which Blackwell had put into his text. Further distress came with the news that Charles Mott, the talented young baritone who played the Organ-Grinder, died in 1918 after returning to the front.

Perhaps now is the time for a new generation to identify themselves with the ideals of 'The Starlight Express'. Many children have been raised on Harry Potter stories, where youngsters also set off on journeys through magic portals and travel by magical trains in a quest to save the world. However, it is very unlikely that a restoration of 'The Starlight Express' in its original play form with acted dialogue, songs and incidental music (of which Elgar wrote 300 score pages) could happen. This new Chandos project has come up instead with a way of recording Elgar's Starlight music in its entirety. Sir Andrew Davis has written a narrative, based on the play and 'A Prisoner in Fairyland', which is spoken by Simon Callow, an eminent English actor (or "Lovie" as the UK media are wont to call high-rank actors). Elgar's songs are interpolated in the score as written, with Baritone Roderick Williams as the Organ-Grinder, and Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas as Laugher and Jane Anne. The accomplished Scottish Chamber Orchestra, augmented by a barrel organ and the Usher Hall organ, play the music.

I've always been averse to mixing spoken monologue with music, but I have to admit that this is done very well here, with Callow reading briskly, expressively and unfussily, without vocally over-acting. His diction is excellent, so there is little need to consult the booklet text - a feature also exhibited by Roderick Williams, who is in fine voice carrying off his roles with great relish. Elin Manahan Thomas, although vocally pure and tonally sure, is not so clear in her diction, so consultation of the text is needed. To give her due, however, a number of her parts involve off-stage or distant 'appearances' not conducive to clarity of delivery.

In his incidental music, even in movements often no more than a few minutes long, Elgar shows a remarkable ability to make something simple sound wonderful. As well as describing emotions and moods, he depicts sunsets, sunrises and stars with great skill and beauty. From the start, he planned to re-use material from his earlier 'Wand of Youth' Suites, in which he expressed his genuine love of early childhood and reminisced about his own early years. Some of their characteristic tunes appear from movement to movement, used almost like Wagnerian leitmotifs and thus acting to tie the structure together. Knowledgeable Elgarians will also recognise some sequences from 'The Music Makers' in Jane Anne's song at the end of Act II Scene 2.

The original play was certainly too long, and given that the new version is still delimited by the incidental music, that remains a problem. Sir Andrew's new narrative is based on a thorough reading of the Blackwood original story and enhanced by his visiting the featured locations in Switzerland which Blackwood refers to. But it bristles with too much behavioural and environmenta detail, such that the story line is unclear. The often stiff-sounding language is obviously that of upper and upper middle class people in the early 1900s; but would children of the time understand such words as "symbolism", "inertia" or concepts such as "universal conciousness", unless getting on-line explanations from accompanying Nannies or Tutors?

The story line becomes even more opaque in Act III, where Davis departs from the play's text and moves to the latter part of the Blackwood story for inspiration. Unfortunately, at the point Blackwood becomes very existential, bringing in various philosophical points and mixing them with spiritual issues, which I suspect had some attraction for Sir Andrew as a "message" just as Blackwood wanted. I suspect children listening would be quite thoroughly bored by then, and I was getting fatigued too. Enduring all this philosophising with only a few short orchestral pieces and the odd song in recompense made me realise that I was enjoying the experience for one time only, and I wouldn't ever want to listen to it all again, so fragmentary is the incidental music. The end is also problematic; Violet Pearn changed Blackwood's final words to declare that all celestial stars get their light from The Star of Bethlehem (the play opened close to Christmas), so Elgar duly orchestrated 'The First Noel' with blazing brass as a final gesture: impressive but embarrassing in context. Davis has returned to the Blackwood wording but recognises that the final moments still do not lie comfortably.

Perhaps Chandos and Sir Andrew anticipated that some listeners might not want to play the full version of Starlight more than once, because although Act III takes up a good part of Disc 2, they have provided a new Suite which features all the songs and some of the more substantial orchestral sections. This is an excellent idea also for those who decry spoken narrative being interspersed with music. Because the Suit's material is so good, concentrated, and so well-performed, it would probably be listened to more often.

Disc 2 has room for a bonus. When Violet Pearn's plan was mooted, a young baritone/composer, Clive Cary (1883-1968) was asked to write the music for her play. After some difficulties, when it looked like the play would never get off the ground, she asked Elgar to write the music, on the grounds that having a well-known figure might help. Poor Cary was forgotten, but recently the MS of some of his draft material has come to light, and Sir Andrew has orchestrated three songs which appear on the disc. They are good, but it is fascinating to compare them with Elgar's versions, to see how much more sophisticated and subtle are Elgar's. As Sir Andrew writes in the notes, at last Cary's work is getting some compensatory attention.

The SCO are on top form, enthusiastically performing some vintage Elgar which rarely sees the light of day. The brass in particular are incisive without being overbearing, and the two soloists, Peter Thomas (violin) and David Watkin (cello) are real assets. I immediately recognised the acoustic of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, which is well-tamed by the engineers, leaving plenty of bloom on the instruments, and I believe I can detect the hall's refurbished organ adding to the splendour of the finale's Noel carol. The booklet has smiling photos of the participants, and they all deserve plaudits for carrying out such a renovation of 'The Starlight Express', particularly Sir Andrew Davis, for whom it clearly has been a labour of love.

I suspect that this pair of discs is mandatory only for true died-in-the-wool Elgarists. Others should give it a thorough audition before buying, to make sure that the spoken narration is to their taste. Elgar's Incidental music for 'The Starlight Express' comes in short bursts and some longer songs, and so is not really at the level of, say, his oratorios, symphonies or other orchestral music.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net