- The Starlight Express, incidental music, Op. 78 - Edward Elgar - Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Peter Thomas - David Watkin - Roderick Williams - Andrew Davis - Elin Manahan Thomas - Simon Callow - Dominique Fam
Elgar: The Starlight Expressby Andrew Davis
What you're getting here takes a little explanation. "The Starlight Express" started life as a novel for young people by Algernon Blackwood, A Prisoner in Fairyland, a story of a group of children who collect stardust and carry on a secret existence apart from the adult world. It is not unlike "Peter Pan" in its general outlines, but from the evidence here it is not nearly as elegantly done. Blackwood's novel was made into a play by one Violet Pearn, and Elgar, in 1915, was asked to write incidental music and songs for this play, turning it into a kind of melodrama. Next, the play was reduced here to a narrative, read by actor Simon Callow and structured in such a way as to keep apparently all of Elgar's music, including some little songs. Finally, three songs and a long sequence of instrumental excerpts were collected into a pair of suites by the present conductor, Andrew Davis, leading the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and an assortment of British singers. These final suites are probably the most attractive items here for the average listener. Elgar's music is actually charming, with an airy, tonally simple, yet absolutely characteristic quality as far as could be from the weighty world of his symphonies and oratorios. You could even imagine other performances of these suites as an ideal opener for concerts of English music. The narrated play itself doesn't quite come off, and the original material seems uncertain at times as to whether it wants to be for children or adults. Nevertheless, recordings of this material in any form are rare, and to hear this music from one of Elgar's foremost champions will likely appeal to the composer's fans.
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Performance CreditsAndrew Davis Primary Artist
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The Starlight Express by Edward Elgar is a two-CD set compiled from London and Edinburgh recordings, a production of the Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis. The setting in Edwardian Britain suggests the world of James Barrie—the respectable family and beautiful children with boundless imaginations. Narrator Simon Callow sets the scenes and describes the actions; the listener is entranced and succumbs to the magic of fantasyland. The premise of having a secret star society becomes airborne, inviting the audience to slip into the starry sky for adventures among the constellations. Baritone Roderick Williams and soprano Elin Manahan Thomas portray their roles beautifully. The lilting soprano especially is expressive and full of color. The Scottish National Orchestra never falters, providing the mood and background of the story. The accompanying booklet gives the listener essential background, because without an acquaintance with the tale and history, hearing the CDs would be almost nonsensical. Packaging is especially appealing, with the cover showing a fairy silhouette, steam engine, and starry sky. An attractive box contains the separate CDs and well-documented booklet. The Starlight Express has not reigned in popularity despite the fetching story, first-rate performers, and Elgar’s luscious music. There are several limiting factors: the curious listener must be familiar with the composition or become lost in the back-and-forth of the characters and orchestra; this may be unfairly labeled as a child’s production; the length of the program can lose the attention of the audience; while lovely, the melodies do not haunt and revisit the memory. The story evokes other flights of fancy including Peter Pan, Wynken Blynken and Nod, and The Polar Express. Bedtime stories with the notion of magical travel for children continue to appeal to storytellers in new generations. Elgar’s invitation to climb aboard The Starlight Express offers the adventurer a ticket for an excursion to the land of fantasy and imagination.