MUSIC / Caractacus - Barbican, London EC1

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It used to be the accepted wisdom that Elgar served a lengthy apprenticeship writing long- winded cantatas and oratorios ('the penalty of my English environment,' said the composer, reinforcing this view), and that the Enigma Variations arrived quite suddenly to initiate, at last, the creation of great music.

Not so, as our more sympathetic era has confirmed with an increasing number of live performances of the early choral works, and a growing list of recordings. Caractacus, for instance, performed on Sunday with great flair by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Richard Hickox, is a work of considerable splendour, rich in the characteristics of the composer's maturity.

Its six scenes, sustained with unique symphonic and orchestral mastery, range widely from choral sections of brazen magnificence to encounters of a touching intimacy; and the whole mighty panorama was projected with great conviction by Hickox, hardly a detail of Elgar's teemingly inventive score unheard, the Chorus singing with matchless sonority and attack.

The soloists, too, were exemplary: Judith Howarth soaring radiantly as Eigen, Arthur Davies an ardent Orbin and David Wilson Johnson a brave Caractacus, with Stephen Roberts and Alastair Miles also contributing notably.