Classical Music: King Olaf: BBC Philharmonic / Donald Hunt, Victoria Hall, Hanley

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The Independent Culture
The year 1896 is a prime contender for the title of Elgar's annus mirabilis - the year in which his oratorio The Light of Life (Lux Christi) and the dramatic cantanta Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf both saw the light of day within a few months of each other.

Donald Hunt's recent performance at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival of the former (with the RLPO), his swansong as festival director, was memorably convincing; and it was Hunt who was again at the helm (this time of the BBC Philharmonic) for the centenary revival of King Olaf, given at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, last Saturday, almost exactly 100 years to the day after the 39-year-old Elgar unleashed it at the North Staffordshire Triennial Music Festival.

Besides suiting a penchant (a la Grieg or Wagner) for Germanic-Nordic myth, King Olaf's triumph of Christianity over pagan darkness gave Elgar an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the kind of breakthrough he was striving after in his own artistic life. It's a courageous and, for its day, mould- breaking work, in whose leitmotivic invention, solo and (substantial) choral writing The Dream of Gerontius is clearly foreshadowed. And it opened doors. Performances became rife and within a year Jaeger at Novello's was Elgar's publisher.

Adapted from Longfellow, King Olaf is by no means problem-free. Planned orchestral links got infuriatingly axed at publishers' insistence. One focal encounter sustains the first half - a David-and-Goliath tussle between the pagan Ironbeard (one rather warms to him) and the opportunistically monotheistic upstart Olaf. Then things rather peter out in a loose odyssey of lightly connected Circean scenes, centring on soprano solo.

Paradoxically, it was this rather nebulous, lyrical second part that gained an unexpected cogency here, due partly to Hunt's easing of the tempi, and especially to the soprano Susan Chilcott, resplendent on high notes, who brought to this lightly characterised medley for anti-heroine just the assurance and the shaping of Elgar's stately, extended lines that we so hankered after elsewhere.

Earlier, the tenor Arthur Davies (for whom the role of Olaf might have been tailor-made) seemed oddly tired, tense and undramatic: only "Behold me, my people" took wing; otherwise Olaf remained unprojected and ill at ease (but then, even Edward Lloyd at the 1896 premiere famously missed an entry). Alan Opie, chilling over raspy cellos at the start and an appealing narrator later on, was periodically overwhelmed by an orchestral tidal wave. Elsewhere, from the opening's dark, Apostles-like mutterings of bass clarinet, the BBC Phil, not least in the lush middle-strings close harmony that opens Part 2, responded sympathetically to this unfamiliar score.

Besides Wedgwood and Stanley Matthews, the five towns' pride and joy is the splendidly named (and attired) Ceramic City Choir. If some of the gutsier choruses just lacked the demonism they deserved, the eerier ballads' contrapuntal vigour (for all the non-reverberant acoustic) came across well; some interspersed gems of Elgarian partsong were impeccably phrased; and the sheer inspiration that led him to mesh a Parsifal-tinged apotheosis with the melting song "As Torrents in Summer" could scarcely have been better highlighted. Had Gerontius never emerged, we would treasure King Olaf. We should relish it all the same.

Roderic Dunnett