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

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By coincidence, 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 review) 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.

Ashley Wass 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 release page





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