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English Music Festival:  Elgar Piano Music, David Owen Norris (piano), English Music Festival, Silk Hall, Radley College, Oxfordshire, 22.10.2006 (PCW)


The English Music Festival website (link) was a little coy about this event, providing as much detail about the programme of this concert as you can see above. Having heard Ashley Wass’s recent Naxos disc of Elgar’s piano music (see review), my expectation was of a programme with some overlap but there was none. Instead we were treated to an illustrated lecture on the Five Improvisations and the Concert Allegro. Whilst this was a surprise, it turned out to be in no way disappointing.


David Owen Norris spoke as much as he played, providing an introduction to each improvisation separately with illustrations and amusing anecdotes. Crusading against the generally bad reputation of Elgar’s piano music he first blamed Clifford Curzon’s oft-quoted jibe that Elgar “played the piano like a piano tuner”. Next in the dock was Fanny Davies, for whom the Concert Allegro was written, indicted for misinterpretation and playing it at half-tempo, and for stifling significant further composition for the instrument. Owen Norris spoke passionately for Elgar but against slavish fidelity to musical scores. Diverse tales abounded, for example from his experience of being a repetiteur at Covent Garden when Jon Vickers was Siegfried, and also of Trevor Pinnock’s definition of authenticity. More pertinent to Elgar, he cited Rosa Buckley’s story of people coming to her claiming to be a variation and her riposte that she was the theme.


The Five Improvisations were given by Elgar in 1929 (when he was 72) in a studio and recorded on hot wax by Fred Gaisberg. They were not released for many years and Owen Norris first heard them on an illegal tape in 1989. He freely admits in the programme to improvising further on them and has recorded them (along with the Concert Allegro and various other works) on a disc available the Elgar Society (see review). The first and third improvisations derive material from a dance in Rossini’s William Tell; the second was based on one of his own songs and the fourth contains material from the slow movement of the incomplete Piano Concerto (recently realised for performance by Robert Walker and recorded by Owen Norris (review). The final improvisation we were told contains the “best tune Elgar never wrote down”. As Owen Norris was poised to begin it, a couple began to leave. He waited and muttered softly but audibly “One never knows why?!”. It must have been an emergency for they were also to miss the thrilling concluding rendition of the Concert Allegro.


Owen Norris’s playing was just as memorable as his informally delivered narrative, finding the spirit of Elgar whilst not having to worry about the score of the improvisations (he has not written them down and plays by ear). In the Concert Allegro Owen Norris has literally shone new light on this score, playing an original version which he managed to recreate after Elgar had shortened the [unpublished] score by pasting over parts of it.  


The only blot on the occasion was the size of the audience – perhaps 30 or so in an elegant and intimate location that could have held many times that number. This was a fascinating way to spend an hour or so on a wet Sunday morning. Owen Norris entertained us superbly in a tour de force which communicated powerfully his love of both Elgar and improvisation at the piano.


Patrick C Waller



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