The best recordings of Elgar's Falstaff
From inn to battlefield, Elgar’s symphonic portrayal of Shakespeare’s rotund knight Falstaff is one of his most colourful creations. Jeremy Pound raises a toast to the best recordings
Falstaff stumbles and bumbles straight into the opening bars of the 1913 work that bears his name, as Elgar introduces us to Shakespeare’s fat knight with a lurching, lolloping theme in the cellos, bassoons and bass clarinet. What follows is a 30-minute ‘symphonic study’ of a character that fascinated the composer, based around Sir John Falstaff’s antics in Henry IV, Parts I & II (though not The Merry Wives of Windsor).
Elgar’s orchestration is at its most brilliantly inventive as, roving between London, Kent and Gloucestershire, our eponymous hero variously boasts and preens, gets into a skirmish, gets drunk, falls asleep, heads into battle, is cruelly cold-shouldered, loses heart and, finally, dies. Along the way, this course of events is interrupted by two ‘interludes’, in which he dreams of better times and places.
The lumbering awkwardness of Falstaff’s theme, which appears in various guises throughout, is in contrast with the self-confidently striding, and distinctly Elgarian, march of his ultimately fickle friend, Prince Hal.
The best recordings of Elgar's Falstaff
Adrian Boult (conductor)
London Philharmonic Orchestra (1973)
Warner Classics (download/stream only)
ELGAR PACKS A LOT into half an hour. When Falstaff is not slurring his speech to the amusement of others in the Boar’s Head (a star moment for the bassoon), setting up ambushes or leading his aging warriors into battle at Gaultree Forest, there are also moments of reflection, wistfulness and, after his rejection by Prince Hal, pathos. Add to this the lyricism of the first ‘dream’ interlude and the medieval dance for pipe and tabor in the second, and there is plenty for a conductor to negotiate.
Adrian Boult was as closely associated with this work as anyone. Of his three recordings with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, go for that from 1973 ahead of the two from the 1950s, not least because of its superior recorded sound.
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Not everything is immaculately presented – some of the string playing in particular is a bit wayward – but Boult more than makes up for that with his sense of drama and sheer fun. While evidently revelling in conveying the stodgy character of Falstaff himself, Boult nonetheless keeps things moving at a lively pace, lingering only where necessary.
Skirmishes crash and flash vividly, the Boar’s Head scene is a riot, and reminiscences sigh with real wistfulness. Above all, this is a genial Falstaff in whose company you would gladly spend time.
John Barbirolli (conductor)
The Hallé (1964)
There is little to choose in this work between Sirs Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli, two great knights of British conducting and supreme Elgarians both. Each brings excitement, charm and jolliment in equal measure.
Ultimately, it depends whether you are more inclined towards the London pub or the Gloucestershire orchard. Boult is rowdier in the former, while Barbirolli plunges us back more convincingly into times past in the latter, as his wind players cavort merrily through the dance for pipe and tabor. Barbirolli’s solo violinist in the first interlude could perhaps be just a little more melodious – Falstaff seems in a bit of a hurry to get his drunken dream over and done with – but it’s a small gripe.
Alexander Gibson (conductor)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra (1979)
Falstaff is by its very nature a work of constantly changing tempos, moods and themes, as Elgar moves the eponymous knight rapidly from one situation to another. Stitching all this together into one seamless narrative is no small challenge, and it’s a piece that can all become disjointed and episodic.
Hats off, then, to Scottish conductor Alexander Gibson who, while not always hitting the peaks of excitement of Boult and Barbirolli or matching the pathos of Mark Elder (see below), does a masterful job as storyteller. From Falstaff’s opening boasts to his final breath, there are no longeurs nor is any moment over-indulged in – it’s an engaging listen throughout. Much of the playing is sublime, and his Prince Hal is as supremely regal as any.
Mark Elder (conductor)
The Hallé (2004)
Mention must be made here of Elgar’s own fleet-footed recording, made with the London Symphony Orchestra (one of the best orchestras in the world) in 1932 and available on the Naxos label. As with most recordings in which composers conduct their own works, it’s a fascinating reference point, though the crackly, claustrophobic recorded sound rules it out as a serious contender.
A slightly po-faced bassoon soloist, meanwhile, mars an otherwise engaging version from David Lloyd-Jones and the English Northern Philharmonia, again on Naxos.
And so my final choice goes instead to a second Hallé recording, this time with Sir Mark Elder holding the reins. If Elder sets out in slightly deliberate fashion – I’d prefer a more care-free approach – he handles the final moments quite brilliantly, lending a sympathetic ear as, to the sound of swooping downward strings, Falstaff slumps off into despondency. It’s beautifully paced and surprisingly moving.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.