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Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Piano Music
Sonatina in G major (1887 rev. 1930) [4:08]
Dream Children Op.43 (1902 orchestral version) [6:16]
Une Idylle Op.4 No.1 (1884) [4:10]
Carissima (1913) [4:14]
May Song (1901) [4:16]
Douce Pensée (Rosemary) (1882) [2:44]
Echo’s Dance (adapted and transcribed from The Sanquine Fan, Op.81 No.7 Allegro) (1916) [2:11]
Serenade Mauresque: No. 2 of Three Characteristic Pieces, Op.10 (1899) [5:59]
Enigma Variations, Op.36 (1899) [32:48]
Ashley Wass, piano
rec. St George’s Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 30 January-1 February 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.570166 [66:58]


 

Unfortunately there is no indication on this CD that this is a first volume. Are we to suppose that this is Anthony Wass’s only recital of Elgar’s piano music, or do we expect another CD in the near future?  Certainly there are just about enough piano pieces to fill a second volume, even if most of the works would be arrangements or pieces as yet unpublished.  Yet sadly Naxos appear to start off ‘cycles’ of music only to give up part way through – we need only think of the Liszt and Ireland piano music projects.

But let us assume that this is the first instalment. My first criticism is that the works are not chronological.  The main competition is probably Peter Pettinger’s recital on Chandos and the putative ‘Complete Piano Music of Edward Elgar’ played by David Owen Norris. Yet this last project has so far only resulted in the first volume. Pettinger is largely in date order but omits the piano version of the Enigma Variations. David Owen Norris includes a few of the unpublished pieces in his recital and promises every scrap of piano music that fell from the composer’s pen – a trainspotter’s delight.

Yet Wass’s recital seems to lack rhyme or reason.  The only substantial piece is the Enigma Variations – the rest are by and large attractive but minor salon pieces. I would have expected at least one other heavyweight such as the Concert Allegro or the impressionistic In Smyrna.

But let’s see what we do have.  The recital opens with the 1930 revision of the early Sonatina.  This lovely work was composed in 1887 for a certain May Grafton who happened to be Elgar’s niece.  The work is in two movements: an Andantino and an Allegro. The latter is marked ‘as fast as you can’ which may have been a tall order for an eight year old girl.  The first movement was originally an ‘allegretto’ but was revised to a slightly gentler pace.

Wass continues with an arrangement of the nostalgic Dream Children. This is a work that falls into the same category as the Wand of Youth Suites and Nursery Suite. It is perhaps epitomised by the inscription on the score, an excerpt from an essay by Charles Lamb: “We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all ..... We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been ...." Alice was perhaps to be identified in the composer’s mind with the Windflower – his ‘friend’ and ‘confidante’. Elgar once told Sir Sidney Colvin: "I am still at heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by Severnside, with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds and longing for something very great."

Une Idylle (1884) was originally composed for violin and piano and was a part of Elgar’s Op. 4 which also includes a Pastourelle and a Virelai.  The three pieces were dedicated to a certain E.E in Inverness and were composed in remembrance of a holiday romance.  The Idylle is a typical wistful piece that serves its intention well.

Wass then jumps forward some thirty years to 1913. The attractive Carissima was originally composed for small orchestra. Apparently the material was derived from some of Elgar's musical sketchbooks. Curiously this orchestral miniature was destined to become the first piece that Sir Edward recorded for HMV. As the programme notes point out this is a work that has ‘immediate appeal, in the composer’s unmistakable musical language’.

May Song was another piece originally composed for violin and piano and is a fine example of the better kind of salon music that was so prevalent at the turn of the century. The middle ‘trio’ is absolutely perfect in its balance and sentiment.

Douce Pensée (Rosemary) is another fine example of the genre and is subtitled ‘For Remembrance.’ But somehow I think this epithet may have been for the publisher and his public rather than representing the composer’s autobiographical thoughts.

I must confess that I just love Echo’s Dance (1917) from The Sanguine Fan. Once again we have a work that was inspired by Lady Alice Stuart-Wortley who is better known to Elgarians as ‘Windflower’. She suggested to the composer that he write a ballet: it was to be a charity affair raising funds to help with ‘Concerts at the Front’.  The libretto is basically about Pan and Echo – playing their duets in a Watteau-inspired landscape. The title of the ballet derives from a painted fan by a local artist depicting the two gods. ‘Sanguine’ actually refers to a red chalk that was the artist’s medium - so is largely incidental to the plot of the ballet.

The last of the miniatures is the ‘Serenade mauresque’ which the programme notes suggest seems to drift back and forth between the shores of Spain and the Malvern Hills.  It is the piece I least enjoyed yet the ‘English’ bit is quite attractive, the Spanish perhaps a bit derivative. It was the second of the Three Characteristic Pieces Op.10.

It is not necessary to discuss the Enigma Variations in any great detail as it is possibly one of the best known works by Elgar and in fact by any British composer. I was not too sure how to approach this piano ‘reduction’. Was it worth listening to? Or is it just a kind of study aid?

I was surprised to find out that there are at least two other versions currently available including Anthony Goldstone [MRCD94001] playing Elgar’s Broadwood piano and Maria Garzon on ASV [CDDCA1065] - so that gave me some confidence in the work. I was a bit concerned about the provenance of this transcription – was it by Elgar himself or by someone at a later date? A brief look at Elgar’s ‘Letters to his Publisher’ revealed that the piano version was presented to Novellos at the same time as the orchestral score – so it was not an afterthought or a money-spinner.

I was thus able to sit down and listen to a ‘genuine’ piano work by Sir Edward and not feel that somehow I was being cheated or short-changed.

Let me say straightaway that I was seriously impressed by the clarity of the work. The piano version, although obviously simplified, brings out lines of musical thought, harmonies and nuances that appear to be lost in the more complex orchestral score. Much as I love the orchestral version – especially when conducted by Sir Adrian Boult - I do feel that this piano transcription deserves a life of its own.

As with all CDs released by Anthony Wass the piano playing is excellent. As noted above, the structure of the Enigma Variations is revealed as I have never heard it before. He does not play the ‘salon’ pieces in a style that is patronising, but reveals the wistfulness and longing that are inherent in their style.

John France



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