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Daily album review 21: Andrew Davis and Edward Elgar reintroduce adults to childhood wonder

By John Terauds on December 6, 2012

Sir Andrew Davis leading the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in one of the recording sessions for The Starlight Express at Usher Hall in Edinburgh last May.

Before the 3-D movie and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s roller-skated mega-musical, The Starlight Express was a forgotten Edwardian melodrama about a group of children exploring the gentler side of human nature through a fantasy game involving the stars and a cave near a Swiss village.

As edited, rewritten and rearranged by conductor Sir Andrew Davis, music by Sir Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) and story by Algernon Henry Blackwood (1869-1951) become nearly two hours of magic on this 2-CD Chandos release.

This is one of those child-centred works that is really all about the grown-ups. Specifically, it is about recovering some of the lost wonder of childhood and treasuring the ability to imagine something other than the often hard reality of the day-to-day.

The father of a cozy family, a writer by day and dreamer by night, introduces his children to a magical, nocturnal world of anthropomorphised constellations where a blue-eyed fairy sets things right and where the dustman sprinkles the tired eyes of the insomniac elderly with the very best stardust.

The work opens with a song that sets the tone for the whole piece, sung as perfectly as anyone might be able to imagine by baritone Roderick Williams:

O children, open your arms to me,
Let your hair fall over my eyes;
Let me sleep a moment, and then awake
In your garden of sweet surprise!
For the grown-up folk are a wearisome folk,
And they laugh all my fancies to scorn…

O children, open your hearts to me,
And tell me your wonder thoughts.
Who lives in the palace inside your brain?
Who plays in its outer courts?
Who hides in the hours tomorrow holds?
Who sleeps in your yesterdays?
Who tip-toes along past the curtained folds
Of the shadow that twilight lays?

O children, open your eyes to me,
And tell me your visions too;
Who squeezes the sponge when the salt tears flow
To dim their magical blue?
Who brushes the fringe of their lace-veined lids?
Who trims their innocent light?
Who draws up the blinds when the sun peeps in?
Who fastens them down at night?

O children, I pray you sing low to me.
And cover my eyes with your hands.
O kiss me again till I sleep and dream
That I’m lost in your fairylands…
For the grown-up folk are a troublesome folk,
And the book of their childhood is torn!
Is blotted, and crumpled, and torn!

According to Davis’s notes in the booklet, which also includes the full libretto, playwright Violet Pearn (1890-1947) took Blackwood’s 1913 book, A Prisoner in Fairyland, and began turning¬† it into a melodrama in 1914. There were problems of all sorts, which led to the first composer, Clive Carey (1883-1968), being replaced by Edward Elgar.

Elgar, keen to underline the text’s emphasis on restoring sympathetic relations between people during the darkness of World War I, wrote a gorgeous score — one he loved so much that it was the first thing he recorded for the gramophone in 1916.

Davis has replaced huge chunks of dialogue with narration, beautifully read by actor Simon Callow.

The second CD also includes a 45-minute orchestral suite of Elgar’s music, arranged by Davis, as well as the conductor’s orchestration of three tossed-aside songs set by Carey, the original composer.

Davis leads the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a clean, transparent performance, recorded this past spring. Baritone Roderick Williams is joined by wonderful soprano Elin Manahan Thomas.

This is magic from beginning to end, musically as well as textually. It’s best savoured near a crackling fire, in a comfortable chair, with a warming drink in hand.

These are two-hours of imagination-fuelled therapy good for pretty much anything that ails the grown-up mind.

For more details on this disc, click here.


Davis concludes his notes with with a 1917 letter to Elgar from a British officer stationed in muddy Flanders:

Although unknown to you, I feel I must write to you tonight. We possess a fairly good gramophone in our mess, and I have bought your record Starlight Express: ‘Hearts must be soft-shiny dressed,’ being played for the twelfth time over. The gramophone was anathema to me before this war, because it was abused so much. But all is changed now, and it is the only means of bringing back to us the days that are gone, and helping us through the Ivory Gate that leads to Fairyland, or Heaven, whatever one likes to call it… Music is all that we have to help us carry on.”

Here is Charles Mott singing the “Curfew Song” from that 1916 recording, with Elgar himself conducting:

The sun has gone:
The tide of stars is setting all one way.
The Pleiades call softly to Orion
As, nightly, they have called these million years:
The children lie asleep; now let them out;
And overhearing,
We waft the fairy call into your dreams,
That you may swim upon that tide of gold
And, list’ning in your hearts,
Just overhear
That deep, tremendous thunder
Signalling reply:
All’s well!
Orion answering the Pleiades!

John Terauds

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