Elgar Piano Music – Enigma Variations/Ashley Wass

0 of 5 stars

Sonatina in G
Dream Children, Op.43
Une Idylle, Op.4/1
May Song
Douce Pensée
Echo’s Dance
Three Characteristic Pieces – No.2: Sérénade Mauresque
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Ashley Wass (piano)

Recorded in January and February 2006 in St George’s Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: November 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.570166
Duration: 67 minutes

The piano was not exactly central to Elgar’s output. His own playing was, by all accounts, idiosyncratic and, apart from the Piano Quintet of 1918-19 he completed little of importance for the instrument. Yet, as we know, Enigma Variations was born while Elgar was improvising at home one evening, so his version for solo piano is interesting for that reason alone.

First on Ashley Wass’s disc, though, comes a selection of shorter pieces, some originally for piano, some transcriptions from, or alternatives to, other media. The tiny (at just four minutes) Sonatina that Elgar wrote in 1887 for his niece May Grafton is an unpretentious little charmer, consisting of just two movements, a wistful Andantino and a frisky Allegro whose mercurial mood-swings Wass faithfully charts. He sees deeply into the heartache and regret of Dream Children (the piano version dates from the same time as the orchestral score), and responds directly to the simple lyricism of Une Idylle, from 1884.

Wass brings out the emotional subtleties of Carissima (1913; Elgar launched his recording career with the orchestral version the following year), and enjoys the gentle quirkiness of May Song, written in 1901 for piano and for violin and piano, and orchestrated in 1928. Wass finds an attractive waltz-like lilt in Douce Pensée, the earliest piece on the disc, written in 1882 and re-titled Rosemary in the later version of 1915, when Elgar also orchestrated it. He brings out all the capricious fantasy of Echo’s Dance, adapted from the 1917 ballet The Sanguine Fan, and invests Sérénade Mauresque (the second of the orchestral Three Characteristic Pieces, Opus 10) with a haunting quality that goes beyond Elgarian wistfulness.

Wass’s account of the piano version of Enigma Variations includes some ear-opening takes on this much-loved piece. He takes the ‘Theme’ extremely slowly, but the following ‘C.A.E.’ at a quicker pace and after a break which undermines the continuity between the two, my only real grumble. ‘H.D.S.-P.’ is crisp and toccata-like, ‘W.M.B.’ storms about vigorously, the contrasting moods of ‘R.P.A.’ are heightened, ‘Nimrod’ is thoughtful, warm and eloquent, ‘G.R.S.’ is all exuberant energy.

Wass what, orchestrally, is the solo viola melody in ‘Dorabella’ a slightly forlorn character, at the same time as he projects the “dance-like lightness” Elgar himself described. He doesn’t quite avoid the temptation to treat ‘B.G.N.’ as a second ‘Nimrod’; it is slower and more elegiac than I expected, so making less of a contrast with the following Variation than usual. He enters fully into Elgar’s burst of self-confidence in the finale but also makes the recall of ‘C.A.E.’ a deeply touching moment.

There are passages, like the very end of ‘E.D.U.’, when Wass allows himself an expansiveness that would sound intolerably overblown in the orchestral version, but works perfectly well here. He brings out some fascinating differences of detail, added, omitted or re-shaped from the orchestral version, such as the violin figuration in ‘Troyte’ re-modelled into something more idiomatically pianistic, or the brief extra flourish in the treble at the climax of ‘Nimrod’.

Wass neither patronises the salon pieces nor over-sentimentalises them and treats Enigma Variations like original piano music, not trying to sound like a missing orchestra. Naxos gives him a realistic piano sound.

This disc is not a high priority for anyone exploring Elgar for the first time, but it offers a fascinating sidelight on the composer and, in the case of Enigma Variations, intriguing insights into a work that might be too familiar. The absence of, among other things, the Concert Allegro of 1901, Elgar’s only original solo piano work of more than miniature dimensions, prompts the hope that Naxos is planning a follow-up.

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