I became aware of this disc being issued around the same
time as deciding to go to hear David Owen Norris perform
Elgar at the English Music Festival. Despite the generally
poor reputation of Elgar’s piano music, anticipation was
high. Records and performances of Elgar’s Piano Music are
rare and John Ogdon’s recording from the days of LP lingers
in the memory. I received the disc before the event and
then saw John France’s review.
My initial reactions were fairly similar: slight disappointment
about the programming, decent playing, interesting to hear
the Enigma variations in this form. I waited on writing
this review expecting to hear some overlap in the recital
but there was none (see review).
Having heard David Owen Norris speak and perform the Five
Improvisations and Concert Allegro, my reactions
to this disc changed. In a nutshell, Owen Norris’s programme
and playing of Elgar was much more compelling, even making
allowances for hearing it live. As soon as I came back from
the recital I ordered his disc of Elgar Piano Music (see
from the Elgar website. There is almost no overlap in the
programme (just the Sonatina) but Owen Norris plays all
the music that Elgar actually wrote for the piano, Wass
merely the Sonatina and piano arrangements. So to call this
disc “Elgar Piano Music” seems a bit of nerve really. And
Owen Norris is just as good on CD as he was live.
is doing a fine job of exploring English piano music on
Naxos, particularly in Bax, and this is generally sensitive,
interesting playing. However, only the Enigma variations
seem to be a major challenge to a virtuoso pianist and that
more interpretively than technically in most of the variations.
Wass generally opts for slowish tempi by comparison with
the orchestral versions I have to hand – the composer and
Boult in particular. This is most noticeable in the theme
and the first variation (C.A.E. – Elgar’s wife), and in
places this approach seems questionable on the piano. Things
improve in the second variation and then it becomes hard
not enjoy hearing the piece in this form. There is some
wonderful Elgarian pomp in W.M.B. and the variations pass
neatly on. Nimrod is very well done at a fairly flowing
speed and, of the later variations, only Dorabella and the
very last one (E.D.U. – Elgar himself) bring any disappointments,
and that may be because they don’t really work on the piano.
What of the
rest? With the exception of Carissima, I found
little to be really memorable - in contrast with, say, In
Smyrna on the Owen Norris disc. As a way to hear the
Enigma variations on the piano or as an inexpensive
complement to Owen Norris, this is fair enough but no one
should buy it and think Elgar, Piano – tick.
If Wass is yet to challenge Owen Norris on the ground he
has carved out so well then it could be interesting but,
for now, my advice is to spend a little more and experience
the real thing.
Patrick C Waller
see also review
by John France
for reviews of other Naxos releases of
British composers, see the themed