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Elgar: The Starlight Express / Manahan Thomas, Williams, Davis

Elgar / Thomas / Scottish Chamber Orch / Davis
Release Date: 11/13/2012 
Label:  Chandos   Catalog #: 5111   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sir Edward ElgarClive Carey
Performer:  Elin Manahan ThomasRoderick WilliamsSimon Callow
Conductor:  Sir Andrew Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ELGAR Starlight Express: Incidental Music 1. Starlight Express: Suite 2. CAREY Three Songs from The Starlight Express 3 Andrew Davis, cond; 1,2 Elin Manahan Thomas (sop); 1-3 Roderick Williams (bar); 1 Read more class="ARIAL12">Simon Callow (nar); Scottish CO CHANDOS 5112 (2 SACDs: 138:08)

Algernon Blackwood was, among the many occupations in which he engaged during an unusually full life, an acclaimed writer of stories and novels of the supernatural. The Starlight Express is an adaptation of his 1913 novel for juvenile readers, A Prisoner in Fairyland . Violet Pearn, a novice playwright with theatrical connections, convinced the author to join her in reworking the story for a stage production that was to occur in 1914. The plot centers on a close-knit English family of limited means, living in a pension in Switzerland. The father, an author, struggles to find inspiration for his next book, and all of the other adults in the boardinghouse are revealed to be struggling with life, as well. The children, and soon a visiting adult cousin, form a secret Star Society that is a daylight manifestation of unremembered out-of-body spiritual journeys into the night to gather stardust. Magical sprites —a poor organ-grinder, a dustman, a lamplighter, a gardener, a chimney sweep, a spirit of laughter, and the mother spirit—travel on the cousin’s Starlight Express: in form a toy train, but in substance a gateway into the spiritual world. Under the guidance of these allegorical characters, representing hope, simplicity, good humor, and empathy, the children distribute the stardust to the troubled adults of their world to bring them inner peace, or clarity, or vision as needed to deal with their daytime troubles. In the final act, the children’s unselfish devotion to their task brings the “wumbled” (worried-jumbled) adult world into a state of serenity and greater harmony as the Christmas star is revealed.

As recent commentators on the work have made clear, modern responses are often chilly to all this Edwardian sentimentality and to the author’s and composer’s naïve (and some maintain, occult) fantasies of easy mystical resolutions to conflict and poverty. Though Elgar found the subject immediately appealing, Blackwood’s story may prove a bit jejune for some tastes. It apparently proved so for adults in wartime London, for while it was reportedly popular with children, it struggled for an audience and closed early after a 40-performance run, showing none of the staying power of the contemporary Peter Pan of J. M. Barrie. Even so, for those of us who take pleasure in nostalgic children’s literature and movies—and an affection for the Tom Hank’s film of The Polar Express or J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter might serve as a barometer of tolerance—this tale of magic and innocent compassion has a certain wistful charm.

There is no denying, in any case, the quality of Edward Elgar’s incidental music. The critics of the time recognized it even while largely dismissing the play itself, and soon after its closing the composer was before the recording horn, setting down eight sides of songs and interludes. Elgar’s childlike sense of wonder—a quality largely unfamiliar to those who know only the symphonies, marches, and concertos—makes magic from the nostalgia. The music is by turns whimsical and haunting, with infectious dance rhythms (delightful waltzes!) and touches of Elgarian melancholy. The style is rooted in the composer’s own juvenile writings, collected in the two The Wand of Youth suites. Indeed, Elgar uses music from that collection as thematic material throughout, and verbatim as interludes in the second act. His original intent was to do only that, but his newly formed—and long-lasting—friendship with Blackwood, and his deep identification with the project led him to write much more music than originally planned. In a little over a month of feverish composition, approximately 300 score pages—more than 80 minutes—of songs, interludes, and melodramas were produced, making this Elgar’s longest work for the stage.

The play has not had a professional production since 1915—a BBC broadcast of 2007 excepted—but the music has had a better run. Besides the 30-minutes that Elgar recorded himself in 1916 (Music & Arts) and some shorter excerpts over the years, Vernon Handley recorded all of the music to the play for a release in 1976 by EMI, with the songs sung characterfully by Derek Hammond-Stroud and Valerie Masterson, and the music of the melodramas shorn of dialog. There have been, as well, suites of the songs led by George Hurst (Chandos 1985) and—quite delightfully—by Charles Mackerras (Decca 1992). This latter is distinguished by the outstanding performances of Bryn Terfel and Alison Hagley.

Previous efforts, however, are eclipsed by what has been accomplished here. Andrew Davis has replaced the dialog of the melodramas with a narrative drawn from Blackwood’s original story. This is genially delivered by actor Simon Callow—who participated in the BBC production—with a touch of urbane good humor to ease the sentimentality. In recasting the story to fit the music, Davis addresses the primary deficiency of the Handley recording: long stretches of augmentative music without the words it is designed to accompany. Here, the music seems the stronger for having the structure of the narrative, while the songs can be heard in the context of the tale of which they are an integral part. It creates a most satisfying whole.

For those who remain resistive to all the fairy-tale sweetness, Davis has prepared a 45-minute sequence of the songs with some of the more self-sufficient melodrama music, sans text, as interludes. And as a bonus, he has also sought out and orchestrated the three songs by Clive Carey—singer, composer, and voice teacher of Joan Sutherland, among others—written for that initial production that had to be shelved because of attacks on London in 1914. Quite competent but ordinary in comparison, they can be enjoyed on their own merit, but serve more to highlight the wisdom of engaging Elgar when production plans were reset for Christmas of 1915.

Andrew Davis, an accomplished Elgarian whose recent efforts helped bring the full score of The Crown of India (Chandos— Fanfare 33:4) to light, responds to Elgar’s paean to innocent goodness with warmth, imagination, and a lightness of touch that outclasses Handley’s somewhat stolid reading. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra—a smaller ensemble than that lead by Handley—plays with delicacy, refinement, and a genuine feel for the idiom. Concertmaster Peter Thomas’s several solos are magically taken. Both soloists have voices of extraordinary beauty. Roderick Williams’s subtle shading and pointing are masterful, and he is especially effective at delineating the contrasting characters of the mesmeric Organ Grinder and the rustic Gardener. Elin Manahan Thomas is positively radiant in the portrayal of older sister Jinny and of the ebullient Laugher, the spirit of joyfulness. The notes by Davis are enlightening, and the engineering and presentation fully up to Chandos’s high standards. This is a major addition to the Elgar discography.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Starlight Express, Op. 78 by Sir Edward Elgar
Performer:  Elin Manahan Thomas (Soprano), Roderick Williams (Baritone), Simon Callow (Narrator)
Conductor:  Sir Andrew Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1915; England 
Starlight Express: The Organ-grinder’s Song by Clive Carey
Performer:  Roderick Williams (Baritone)
Conductor:  Sir Andrew Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Starlight Express: The Dustman’s Song by Clive Carey
Performer:  Roderick Williams (Baritone)
Conductor:  Sir Andrew Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Starlight Express: The Gardener’s Song by Clive Carey
Performer:  Roderick Williams (Baritone)
Conductor:  Sir Andrew Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Starlight Express, Op. 78: Suite by Sir Edward Elgar
Performer:  Roderick Williams (Baritone), Elin Manahan Thomas (Soprano)
Conductor:  Sir Andrew Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Pleasant but no great shakes. December 20, 2012 By JOSEPH ERDELJAC (WEST CHESTER, PA) See All My Reviews "Although this recording is pleasant to hear it leave one a bit disappointed in the over all production. Elgar is always lovely but this one lacks excitement." Report Abuse
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