Discs devoted to ‘composer piano’ recordings - that is, recordings played on the actual instruments owned and played by composers - are not so rare. One thinks of Elly Ney doing battle with Beethoven’s Graf piano back in the 1960s for instance. More recently Czechs have proved keen to espouse their own composer’s pianos - Dvorák, Janácek and Suk have duly appeared on disc, as has a lesser fry such as Jaroslav Ježek, all performed by devoted exponents on their Master’s instruments.
Now it’s Avie’s turn. This twofer is performed on Elgar’s 1844 Broadwood Square Piano, an instrument that will sound, according to taste, like a quaint example of mid-nineteenth century construction, or quite the most horrible racket one’s heard in a good long while.
It’s been restored using 1860s felt. David Owen Norris points up the ‘striking’ advantages of hearing this instrument over a modern one in elucidating Elgar’s writing. Specifically he cites the use of arpeggiated chords on the Broadwood as being far more effective than on a modern piano. Elgar left Birchwood Lodge, where he still used the piano, in 1902 though Norris reminds us that he would have had access to it via his sister Pollie. Thus what we have is, in effect, a disc of the complete songs, with some music originally composed at the piano, and a recording of Sea Pictures in the original keys, along with some items never previously recorded.
The songs are, in the main, an area seldom prized by Elgarians, with a few notable exceptions. The Pipes of Pan, In the Dawn, Speak, Music, Queen Mary’s Song, Is She Not Passing Fair and The Shepherd’s Song are the best known and a number saw recordings, sometimes multiply, on 78. Amanda Pitt has the dramatic teeth for A Song of Autumn, which she dispatches with considerable aplomb though elsewhere her vibrato, which can be uncontrolled, widens. Mark Wilde is a pliant, yielding presence, a tenor of thoughtful sincerity. His light, ingratiating tone brings to mind the word ‘gentlemanly’ - though often in a positive sense. He sings In the Dawn with an eager enthusiasm fully seconded by Norris.
Sea Pictures is sung in the original high keys and performed in Elgar’s own piano version. The downward vocal transposition for the published orchestral score was probably made at the instigation of Clara Butt, whose Imperial Contralto required it. It’s certainly not without interest to hear these ‘first thought’s in this performance but whilst Norris does his best to summon up the burnish and fire of, say, Sabbath Morning at Sea, one can’t help wincing at the tiddly sound of the small Broadwood. Amanda Pitt tries gamely but she flares here, and comes under very considerable strain.
The third singer is baritone Peter Savidge, whose genial presence can be heard in a number of songs, notably those that comprise The Fringes of the Fleet. The avuncular Nauticalia is enhanced by a chorus of three: cheery, bonhomonious stuff.
The Prelude and Angel’s Farewell from Gerontius is also heard in the composer’s own piano version. The piano decay is a mite off-putting but there is a certain frisson in all this and I wouldn’t want my own reservations about the sound of the piano, or indeed about some of the performances, to put off potential auditors. We also hear the theme that became the opening of the Cello Concerto (three and a half minutes) and two previously unrecorded songs - As I laye a-thynkynge, which is rather mundane and causes Pitt problems, and XTC, in which he set his own words, and which is much better and should be sung more widely. Norris also performs instrumental/orchestral pieces such as Salut d’amour.
There are full booklet notes - good ones - from Norris
Valuable though this may be in theory, there are certain reservations. The first is the piano, the sound of which may well prove trying to some. The performances are also uneven. I suggest trying to give this a listen before you buy, to see if you can take the Broadwood.
Seven Lieder [18:05]; Like to the damask rose (Simon Wastell) (1892) [3:42]
Queen Mary’s Song (Tennyson) (1887) [3:34] A Song of Autumn (A. Lindsay Gordon) (1887) [3:05] The Poet’s Life (Ellen Burroughs) (1892) [3:21] 1
Through the long days (Col. John Hay) Op. 16, No. 2 (1885) [2:45] 1 Rondel (Longfellow, after Froissart) Op. 16, No. 3 (1894) [1:38] 1 The Shepherd’s Song (Barry Pain) Op. 16, No. 1 (1892) [3:02] 1
A War Song (Hayward) (1884/1903) [4:28]2
Is she not passing fair? (Duc d’Orleans, trans. Costello) (1886) [2:42] 1
*As I laye a-thynkynge (Ingoldsby) (1887) [7:05]
Salut d’amour, Op. 12 (1888) Piano [3:18]
The Wind at Dawn (C.A.Roberts) (1888) [3:21]
After (P.B.Marston), Op. 31, No. 1 (1895) [3:36]
Woodland Interlude from Caractacus Piano [1:52]
Dry those fair, those crystal eyes (H.King) (1899) [1:53] 2
The Pipes of Pan (Adrian Ross) (1900) [4:21] 2
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1899) [23:01] (Elgar’s own piano version)
Sea Slumber Song (R.Noel) [5:56]
In Haven (Capri) (C.A.Elgar) [1:54]
Sabbath Morning at Sea (E.B.Browning) [5:19]
Where Corals Lie (R.Garnett) [4:22]
The Swimmer (A. Lindsay Gordon) [5:30]
*Prelude and Angel’s Farewell (1900) Piano [15:57]
(Elgar’s own piano version) 2. Come, Gentle Night (C.Bingham) (1901) [2:59]
In the dawn (Benson), Op. 41, No.1 (1902) [3:02] 1
Speak, Music (Benson), Op. 41, No. 2 (1902) [3:10] 1
Dream Children, Op.43 - I (1902) Piano [3:34]
Dream Children, Op.43 - II (1902) Piano [3:22]
Arabian Serenade (Lawrence) (1914) [2:27] 2
In Moonlight (Shelley) (1904) [3:01]
Pleading (Salmon), Op. 48 (1908) [3:05] 1
O soft was the song (Parker), Op. 59, No. 1 (1909) [1:52]
The Fringes of the Fleet (Kipling) (1917) 2 3
The Lowestoft Boat [3:01]
Fate’s Discourtesy [3:35]
The Sweepers [2:54]
* “?” (March 1918) Piano [3:24]
It isnae me (S.Holmes) (1930) [2:35] 1
*XTC (unpublished, to Elgar’s own words) (November 11th 1930) [2:20]
* = premiere recording