Elgar's King Olaf: Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral by Christopher Morley

Elgar's Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf were triumphantly premiered in Hanley (the Potteries even producing a special commemorative cup) in 1896. So why has it taken so long to arrive here in Hereford for its Three Choirs premiere on July 30.
Surely its pagan elements cannot have disquieted queasy ecclesiasticals (after all, Olaf brings Christianity to "Norroway", as the Longfellow/Acland libretto so quaintly puts it) who had long admitted Mendelssohn's Elijah to the permitted canon. King Olaf's protracted exclusion remains a puzzle, as it's such a tremendous work.
It is harmonically far-reaching, it oozes glorious melodies, its choral writing rewards committed efforts (as here, from the remarkable Festival Chorus), and its orchestration is confident and exploratory, with, for example, an eloquently tolling bell punctuating events and organ pedals sumptuously underlining huge climaxes. The Philharmonia were magnificent.
Elgar's structure is so well-paced, and conductor Andrew Davis brought appropriate moments of both drama and reflection to this score which culminates in the glorious chorus "As torrents in summer", soprano soloist Judith Howarth fearless in her climactic sustained top C, her colleagues Andrew Staples (tenor) and bass David Shipley equally effective in all their contributions.
The content of this score reveals all the influences important to Elgar during this late launch of his career as a composer: Wagner (naturally, given the importance of Gotterdammerung's Norse gods and of the Flying Dutchman's Norway setting), Verdi's open-hearted lyricism, and the pastoralism of Dvorak, under whose baton Elgar had played that endearing composer's works.
Here the Three Choirs Festival was at a best which would have been impossible to envisage at its founding three centuries ago. Technology provided well-directed televisual coverage. The next step will be to provide surtitles onscreen as well, though I guess that might prove a bit costly.
Christopher Morley

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