Elgar’s The Starlight Express
– not, please, to be confused with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical – is one of his most substantial scores. It has suffered the fate of so much incidental theatre music of subsequent neglect since its first performances in December 1915 at the height of the First World War. Part of the problem must be laid at the door of the original play, an adaptation by Violet Pearn (1890-1947) of a children’s story, A prisoner in fairyland
by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), which really presents what, to more modern and jaded ears, can only be regarded as an impossibly sentimental view of childhood. The booklet quotes Mike Ashley as commenting that the book “benefits from a second reading if you can survive the first,” and the second part of that sentence speaks volumes. It tells of a group of children who attempt to wean their adult companions from a ‘wumbled’ existence and restore them to a state of ‘sympathy’. The text is often as cloying as the concept would suggest. A BBC production in the 1970s presented the play as originally written, but it is quite simply unacceptably twee in its original form. The complete incidental music was recorded for EMI in 1976 by Vernon Handley (SLS5036), but with dialogue completely eliminated; in his booklet notes Sir Andrew Davis claims that this is “meaningless”, but I find that the music in fact stands up quite well as an entity in its own right. The Handley recording was originally reissued as part of a two-CD set (EMI CMS 7698912) coupled with Delius’s music for Flecker’s infinitely better play Hassan -
also given without dialogue - but in subsequent reissues it has been slightly cut in order to fit it onto a single CD.
What Sir Andrew Davis gives us here is the complete music together with a rewritten text, partly derived from Blackwood’s original story and partly completely new. The text is delivered by that most musical of actors Simon Callow, but even he cannot rescue the rewritten dialogue from the accusation of sentimentality – although he does bring a nice sense of sly humour which leavens the lump somewhat. We are therefore also given a new suite arranged by the conductor from the music, giving us the most substantial sections of the score without dialogue; and three songs written for the production by Clive Carey, which were subsequently jettisoned by the producers when Elgar took over the business of writing a score for the theatre. One of these in fact sets a song that Elgar omitted. These have been orchestrated most idiomatically by Sir Andrew.
As a performance of the music this issue must be regarded as superseding Handley’s pioneering recording. Quite apart from the cut made in more recent CD reissues (not too serious, since the music in question was lifted bodily from Elgar’s Wand of Youth
suites, of which many alternative recordings are available), the singing of the important songs is generally much better in this reading. Derek Hammond-Stroud was a great G&S singer, and was also a superb Alberich in Goodall’s Ring
, but he never had a particularly beautiful voice. Roderick Williams here brings a warmth of expression to the music that was simply beyond Hammond-Stroud’s range. His shading of the words in his opening song almost makes one accept the text as a masterpiece … which it decidedly is not. Much of the melodrama occurs in the first Act, and Callow nicely underplays the dialogue which Davis has sensibly pruned so that the music flows almost consistently. While the dialogue is dispatched briskly, Davis is consistently slower and more expressive than was Handley, and points the music with great delicacy. Although the dialogue was recorded separately, there is no sense of disjuncture with the music, and Callow is set well within the orchestral acoustic.
There is one minor point of textual discrepancy. In his recording Handley uses a genuine barrel-organ just before the Organ-grinder’s song Wake up, you little Night Winds!
and the effect is charming. Here (CD1, track 28) we hear an imitation of an offstage barrel-organ played by the woodwind, which sounds much more conventional. I cannot imagine that Handley used his unusual and arresting version without authority; which is correct?
Davis has a smaller orchestra than Handley’s London Philharmonic, but the resonant Chandos sound lends it plenty of body, and he points the offbeat accents in the opening to much greater effect than Handley. The lion’s share of the singing goes to Williams, but when the soprano enters Elin Manahan Thomas is similarly more expressive than the poised Valerie Masterson was for Handley. Williams assumes a quite different voice, quaintly rustic, for the Gardener’s little offstage song (CD1, track 38); later he brings genuine pathos to the haunting line “Bring on the dawn, but not the dawn of Day!” (CD2, track 7).
At the end Elgar makes use of The first nowell
as a counterpoint to his own music, as a representation of the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem. Andrew Davis in his booklet note is quite scathing about this – he thinks that “Blackwood must have hated it”, and states that “all commentators have agreed the moment grates.” This commentator must disagree; it is a thrillingly transcendent moment, with Elgar’s counterpoint producing some deliciously scrunchy harmonies. Davis relishes the climax, but the dialogue which immediately follows is really not needed here and I prefer the version in the suite.
It is fascinating to hear the music written by Clive Carey which was subsequently discarded, but it makes one realise all the more how much more refinement Elgar brought to the text. Carey’s are more conventional settings, although the accompaniments have an interest of their own; and one can well see why the producers turned to Elgar after the original presentation in 1914 proved abortive. Carey went on to make a career as a singing teacher (he taught the young Joan Sutherland); his writing for the voice is idiomatic, and clearly relished by Williams.
It is quite probable that listeners will not often wish to hear the music with the dialogue, even with Callow’s sensitive delivery; and for that reason it is extremely sensible of Chandos to assemble the principal musical numbers as a continuous suite on the second CD. These appear to be distinct performances – the given durations of individual numbers are different to those in the complete score as given on the first CD – but the differences are minimal. The overall presentation is superlative, with the full dialogue given in the booklet. The whole is enclosed within a substantial box.
Those who love this score as much as Elgar did - and I do - will welcome this new recording. It really has more light and shade than Handley’s pioneering set welcome though that was at the time. I can imagine myself returning to the reading of the extended suite regularly – perhaps less so to the absolutely complete music with its sometimes annoying spoken dialogue. I cannot however imagine myself ever being drawn to read the original book; its message of reconciliation may have resonated with the original audiences during the First World War, but it still seems impossibly simplistic and dated now. Nevertheless all Elgarians must hear this superb set.
Paul Corfield Godfrey