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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Orchestral Miniatures
Froissart Overture Op. 19 (1890) [14:02]; May Song (1901 orch. 1928) [4:04]; Carissima (1913) [3:44]; Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra Op. 62 (1910) [5:18]; Three Characteristic Pieces Op. 10 (1882/99) [12:02]; Minuet Op. 21 (1897/9) [4:26]; Chanson de Nuit Op. 15 no. 1 (1897) [4:26]; Chanson de Matin (1898) [3:37]; Three Bavarian Dances (1895) [12:15]
Preman Tilson (bassoon)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 6-8 April 2004
NAXOS 8.557577 [64:04]

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At first, this disc might seem a somewhat curious mixture of rarities and the well known and often recorded. An especially nice and well-filled Teldec disc ostensibly of ‘The Music Makers’ (4509-92374-2) contained a far more sensible collection of miniatures. Then I took the CD out of its case and looked at the advertising behind it. There I discovered that this is the third Elgar disc from the NZSO under their resident conductor of some seven years James Judd. It acts therefore as a sort of mopping-up exercise. Sadly I have not heard the other two discs but if they are consistent with this one, then they can be recommended without delay - especially at Naxos price.  

The nostalgic ‘Romance’ for Bassoon and Orchestra, was new, and the same goes for the ‘Three Characteristic Pieces’. These little works can be heard periodically on Classic FM and in the un-advertised, occasional corners of Radio 3 when its schedule is not too tight. In the concert hall they are encountered rarely. They are in fact quite difficult to programme, being short and often too delicate to make any suitable impression in our age of wanting music brash and ‘in the face’. The Elgar here is somewhat distant from the symphonies and ‘Pomp and Circumstance’.

The disc does however begin with a truly no-nonsense version of Elgar's early ‘Froissart’, more a tone poem inspired by the chivalric 14th Century writer of the chronicles than the composer’s ceremonial side. ‘May Song’ and ‘Carissima’ are charming almost drawing room pieces which demonstrate the other side of the Elgarian coin: the tuneful, the sensitive and the dreamy.

The ‘Bavarian Dances’ are orchestral arrangements of three ‘Scenes from The Bavarian Highlands’ a choral sequence that was so popular in the 1890s and inspired by Elgar’s favourite ‘foreign part’. His admiration for the German people was increased by their willingness to put on several of his works at the turn of the century. Part of his late-life despair was to see how this country turned against the Germans after 1914.

By ‘Characteristic Pieces’ Elgar means miniatures in a certain form or style. So we have a Mazurka, a Serenade called a ‘Mauresque’ and a pair of Gavottes which juxtapose two periods, 1700 and 1900. The movement was apparently inspired by Elgar seeing dancers in Leipzig dressed on their fronts in old dress and on their backs in modern. For some reason, not explained in the booklet, and that I fail to comprehend, the Suite is split after the opening Mazurka by the Minuet Op. 21 originally written as a piano piece in 1897 and orchestrated two years later. It is a pleasant enough piece but surely better placed elsewhere. The only explanation I can possibly think of is that the Suite, originally called Suite in D in its first version, had another movement, a March ‘Pas Redouble’ which is not recorded here and which I have never heard.

The ‘Chanson de Matin’ and ‘Chanson de Nuit’ need no introduction. They are nicely turned out here with some particularly characteristic rubato phrasing. The same can be said elsewhere on the disc.

‘May Song’ was written as a piano piece and not orchestrated until the twilight years when Elgar found it difficult to write anything but enjoyed delving into his youthful cupboard and orchestrating. ‘Carissima’ was based on sketches Elgar had conceived in late teenage. It emerged in 1913 from a request to produce a piece for a side of a 78 shellac record then proving a new and popular technology, especially with Elgar. Its length is perfect, its style delicious.

The booklet essay by the prolific Keith Anderson has biographical notes on Elgar and gives a good a background to each piece. There are also photos and biographies of the performers. So, a delightful disc with attractive and thoughtful performances and at a budget price. I suspect that this particular combination of pieces has not been put together before and probably never will again, so snap it up.

Gary Higginson

see also review by William Kreindler


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