are four world premiere piano recordings by Sir Edward Elgar on
this release, the first of a projected four volumes from the Elgar
Editions label. For some strange reason we are not informed of
this notable achievement on the CD case information. Elgar is
not normally associated with the composition of piano music. Apart
from transcriptions of some major works he did not write a great
amount for the piano and what he did write tends to be overlooked.
is generally forgotten that as well as being a violinist and bassoonist
Elgar was also a fine pianist, particularly notable for private
improvisation. In his teenage years Elgar would frequently assist
his father in tuning customer’s pianos and consequently would
have been very familiar with the instrument. I’m sure that Elgarians
will recall that Elgar struggled with a piano concerto for some
considerable time; a work he was never to complete. Amongst the
great late-romantic composers such as Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss,
Elgar was one of the few that showed any real interest in composing
for the instrument.
may prove helpful to the reader to have some specific information
on the quartet of works that are receiving their premiere recordings:
regard to Five Improvisations the Elgar Society website
and the booklet notes provide a fascinating and detailed background
to the work:
was in November 1929 that the ageing Sir Edward Elgar, by
then an acknowledged pioneer of the gramophone, sat at the
piano in the Small Queen's Hall prior to a recording session
with the New Symphony Orchestra. He had persuaded HMV to record
him and, in the course of the next hour, recorded (Elgar
himself performing at the piano) five improvisations of
great beauty, fascinating in their diverse origins and as
pointers to compositions that Elgar toyed with but never completed.
The recordings lay undisturbed in EMI's vaults for many years,
unheard until included by Jerrold Northrop Moore in EMI's
boxed sets of Elgar's recordings produced in the 1970s. Over
the past ten years, David Owen Norris has made the improvisations
his own, learning Elgar's recordings by ear (they were never
written down), performing them in a number of public concerts
and now making this first commercial recording of them for
early Enina-waltz from 1886, is a short work lasting less
than a minute in duration and is being given its premiere recording.
David Owen Norris performs the work here from the unpublished
single sheet manuscript held in the British Library.
composed the Imperial March, for orchestra, for Queen Victoria’s
Diamond Jubilee in 1897, receiving performances at the Crystal
Palace, a Royal Garden Party, a State Concert and at the Albert
Hall. This piano version of the Imperial March, is as far
as it can be established, being given its premiere recording here
in Elgar’s own transcription.
substantial Concert Allegro from 1901 was a forgotten work
for many years until rediscovered in the late 1960s when it was
performed and recorded by the late John Ogdon. Here soloist David
Owen Norris has returned to Elgar's original manuscript score
which is held in the British Library. David Owen Norris’s careful
exploration of the score’s numerous alterations, cuts, paste-overs
and annotations has allowed him to construct, perform and record,
for the first time, the full version of the twelve minute Concert
the nine other remaining works on this release the most substantial
are the Chantant and the Three Bavarian Dances.
The Chantant composed in 1872, when Elgar was a young man
of fifteen, is mainly derivative of Schumann. The manuscript score
used for this performance is a fair copy with neatly ruled bar-lines.
In 1895 Elgar composed his six partsongs for chorus and orchestra
Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands which is a legacy from
Elgar’s regular holidays near Munich. A year later Elgar completed
a purely orchestral version of three of the scenes. David Owen
Norris performs here Elgar’s solo piano version of the Scenes
from the Bavarian Highlands which is entitled Three Bavarian
the first few bars of this Elgar Editions release Elgar’s fingerprints
become apparent. It seems so typical of the great man, who loved
a jape, to have recorded these Improvisations at the ripe
old age of 73. The Improvisations are the most substantial
work on the disc, a blend of Elgar’s serious and moody side combined
with a certain feel of salon music; a combination that, owing
to his genius, works so well. In fact, the light and melodic disposition
of the fourth Improvisation could easily be used as a theme
on a TV or radio programme.
substantial Concert Allegro was originally entitled Concerto
(without orchestra) and later given the title Allegro (Concert
solo). It received disappointing reviews following
its initial performances. It is so easy to hear Elgar’s symphonic
textures in the work, which Davis Owen Norris brings out so expertly.
I’m rather surprised that it has not been transcribed for orchestra
as it really seems to fit the bill.
experienced soloist Davis Owen Norris clearly loves this music
and comes across as a committed Elgarian. With distinguished and
characterful playing just bursting with freshness and sparkle,
there is no doubting the soloist’s innate sympathy with Elgar’s
wide range of atmosphere and expression. Davis Owen Norris’s interpretations
are extremely accomplished, displaying the ability to portray
the appropriate atmosphere within the often brief timescales,
capturing Elgar’s moods and colouring so impressively.
sound quality of the recording is very natural and assists in
making the case for this neglected corner of the Elgar catalogue.
The booklet notes written by the soloist David Owen Norris are
concise but informative.
illuminating disc for all Elgarians. It will surely appeal to
a far greater audience. Highly recommendable.
Lewis Foreman writes:-
a CD launch at the Savile Club sponsored by Elgar Editions on
4 April, the pianist David Owen Norris introduced his pioneering
programme of Elgar’s piano music, tantalisingly headed Vol 1.
Here is a production where the booklet, by the pianist, is almost
as important as the performances in discussing Elgar’s relationship
both to the keyboard and to his inspiration. Early and late: here
we have four early pieces and a succession of late one including
David Owen Norris’s transcription of Elgar’s piano improvisations,
made in the small Queen’s Hall on 6 November 1929, but not issued
commercially until EMI’s historic LP set "Elgar on Record".
his notes the pianist reminds us that a keyboard improvisation
by an orchestral composer of Elgar’s imagination launches ‘on
an unknown sea of spontaneous creation, unconstrained by notation’,
and admits that his ‘own second thoughts on Elgar’s behalf are
also the work of ear and hand alone’. Thus where Elgar was clearly
constrained by the ending of a 4½ minute side Norris has to decide
where to stop. His solution is eminently artistic, not to say
Elgarian: ‘The last Improvisation follows an intricate pattern
of thought, with quasi-recapitulations and fleeting thematic references.
I'm convinced that Elgar would have wanted to recall his beautiful
melody, and so I bring back its second phrase in combination with
the opening rising thirds, and I play the falling sequences from
its beginning in a circular imitation similar to a passage in
the Finale of the First Symphony. Then I return to Elgar's final
cadence, with its unmistakable and moving reference to the word
"wiedersehen" in the soprano aria in Brahms's Requiem.’ In
discussing the limitations of Elgar’s piano technique, Norris
suddenly produced my musical aphorism of the month: ’Elgar wasn’t
Oscar Peterson’. Well no, but the flavour of Elgar’s improvisations
come from his idiosyncratic pianism, though without the ultimate
in virtuosity, and a fertility of invention which he shares with
the whole programme is the Sonatina, dating from 1889 but revised
for publication in 1930 and fascinatingly analysed by Norris.
Here also is In Smyrna, the source of "Hail Immemorial
Ind!" in Crown of India, and piano transcriptions
of the Imperial March and Three Bavarian Dances.
The other discovery of the programme is Elgar’s Concert Allegro,
possibly thought by many Elgarians to be one of his few duds,
and certainly viewed in that light by critics at the first performance
by the celebrated Fanny Davies a pupil of Clara Schumann. Frankly,
even in John Ogdon’s celebrated recording this is a piece that
has never loomed large on my Elgarian horizons. This is music
in which Elgar bowed to the suggestions of his pianist, and David
Owen Norris believes that Fanny Davies played the piece at anything
down to half speed. As he writes in the notes: ‘The clues lie
in Fanny Davies's pencilled suggestions on the MS. As a pupil
of Clara Schumann's, she had been 'properly trained' - something
of which Elgar's particular genius had never known the need. To
take one example, the classic style of piano playing frowns at
putting the thumb on a black note. As I know from my recreations
of his improvising, Elgar had no such inhibitions. And the Concert
Allegro is full of passage-work where the obvious thing to
do is to preserve the finger pattern you first thought of, which
means that the thumb often ends up on a black note. In many of
these places, Fanny suggests alterations that would enable her
to twist her fingers round in a different way, often at the expense
of Elgar's harmonic integrity. ... The gulf between her musical
world and Elgar's couldn't be clearer. Fanny's finicky fingering
would immediately slow down the glorious rush of Elgar's semi-quavers.
And for anyone out-of-tune enough with Elgar to attempt to curb
his rhetoric, there's a pitfall right at the opening of the piece,
where the crotchet chords are marked risoluto and look
(to a pianist) as if they should be played in a heavy, deliberate
manner. It takes more than a moment to see beyond one's assumptions,
and realize that Elgar has specified two beats in a bar, not four,
and put a swift metronome mark of Minim=88.’
a wonderful example of practical musicology by a pianist totally
in sympathy with his subject – intelligent, idiomatic playing,
a sympathetic eminently realistic recorded sound and the promise
of other volumes to follow; it could not be better. Recommended.