Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, May 2010

For listeners used to hearing only Sir Edward Elgar’s big orchestral works—the First and Second Symphonies, the Pomp and Circumstance marches, the Enigma Variations, and the like—these orchestral miniatures might come as a delightful surprise. They may be short, but they are really quite sweet and enchanting.

Things begin with the Froissart Overture, written in 1890 and one of Elgar’s first popular pieces. It has a nice, dashing swagger to it, inspired by some chivalric lines in a poem by Sir Walter Scott. Following that is a selection of tunes that remind one of the English romantic-pastoral tradition: May Song, Carissima, Three Characteristic Pieces, Chanson de Matin, and Chanson de Nuit. They are slow, lovely pieces with a certain quality of Delius about them.

The Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra is also charming, a work that exploits the poetic quality of the instrument. Then, things conclude in lively fashion with Three Bavarian Dances, which contrasts dramatically with the lyrical tone of most of the preceding pieces and provides a lively ending to the album.

Conductor James Judd makes the most of the music’s varying moods, and he and his New Zealand Symphony Orchestra seem born to play the tunes. They treat the music affectionately, understandingly, generating a totally pleasant listening experience.

As for the sound, it is among the best I’ve heard from this company. For the first few minutes I listened, I thought it was perhaps a tad too forward in the upper midrange, but the ear adjusts, and it adds a bit to the disc’s clarity overall. There is a fairly wide stereo spread to complement the proceedings, a good sense of depth, robust dynamics when needed, and an equally brawny bass drum. This 2006 recording, offered at a bargain price, provides more than its money’s worth.

Penguin Guide, January 2009

James Judd has always been a most understanding Elgarian, and here he conducts an attractive selection of shorter pieces as well as the early overture Froissart, all in understanding performances. The miniatures, at which Elgar was such a dab hand, are presented delightfully and with much affection, while Froissart is ripely passionate. First-rate sound.

David Hurwitz, July 2007

It’s a stretch to call everything on this disc a “miniature”. Froissart is, after all, quite substantial, and the Three Bavarian Dances are scored for large orchestra; but the other works fit the bill, and I’m certainly not complaining about having the extra music. Indeed, the former has all of the necessary swagger that Elgar built into it, while the dances are such attractive pieces that it’s a wonder they’re not better known. As for the remainder, the Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra is particularly charming, and very well played, while it was very smart of James Judd to sandwich the Minuet Op. 21 among the Three Characteristic Pieces Op. 10. Like most great composers Elgar was a very skillful miniaturist. His style was personal enough so as to be instantly recognizable, even in his salon music, and I suspect that this attractive and well-recorded disc will fill a gap in many record collections.

American Record Guide, February 2007

Elgar is well known for his Enigma Variations, Two symphonies, Cello Concerto, Violin Concerto, the Dream of Gerontius oratorio, Serenade for Strings, concert overtures, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (almost a national antheorigin. and, of course, his Pomp and Circumstance Marches. But he wrote much other music, including many “orchestral miniatures”. May Song, Carissima, Minuet, Chanson de Matin and Chanson de Nuit are truly miniatures, none exceeding five minutes. Three others—‘Mazurka’, ‘Serenade Mauresque’ and ‘Contrasts: The Gavotte’—are grouped together as Three Characteristic Pieces, Op.10. Three Bavarian Dances are orchestral arrangements of three of the choral scenes from Bavarian Highlands.

All the miniatures are engaging, with their romantic charm and melodic appeal. The Froissart Overture is a fine work, not quite up to the Cockaigne Overture, which I have adored ever since my callow musical youth (I wore out my 78 RPM copy!). The idea for the Froissart was suggested by the line from Keats that epitomizes the tales of Froissart (a chronicler and historian)-Elgar placed it at the top of the score: “When chivalry lifted up her lance on high”. As the opening suggests, Elgar’s imagination was stirred, and the overture is rich in British splendour. This Judd recording is as good as Gibson’s Chandos effort. The Judd sonics are mellower, the Gibson, brighter.

The Romance for bassoon and orchestra is lovely and even lyrical. Bassoonist Preman Tilson is fine in his brief moment of glory. The album notes are slightly confusing, listing the Minuet, Op.21, between the ‘Mazurka’ and the ‘Serenade Mauresque’ of Three Character Pieces. It is not part of the Three Character Pieces. My guess is that, in preparing the CD, the minuet was misplaced, and rather than recut the CD, Naxos cheekily printed the tracks’ contents as is, without explaining that the Minuet belongs elsewhere.

An enjoyable recording of light music. I continue to marvel at how Naxos can issue such excellent recordings at such an affordable price.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, February 2007

The bonbons on this collection of “Orchestral Miniatures” have little to engage your intellect or emotions; but when played well, they can have the same kind of insinuating (although far from infectious) charm found in Victorian advertising circulars. They’re certainly played well by Judd and the New Zealanders, who-with their tasteful tempo-pulling and their sweet but never clingy string slides-convey the innocent spirit and velveteen textures with a remarkable period flavor. There’s snap and bluffness where required-say, in the first of the Characteristic Pieces or the beery conclusion to the Bavarian Dances. But for the most part, a light touch, even an intimacy, colors the music-making here. The Romance for Bassoon moves a bit further away from the palm court, but it looks back to the two Chansons more than it looks sideways to its contemporary, the Second Symphony-and its nostalgia, too, is eloquently captured.

Froissart, Elgar’s first truly Elgarian orchestral work, is the joker in this pack: at nearly a quarter of an hour it’s hardly a miniature; more important, it breaks free from the salon sensibility of the other repertoire on the disc. Judd’s acumen here is, if anything, even sharper. In lesser hands, Froissart can sound like a lumpy and ill-integrated piece, one in which the forward-looking ideas haven’t quite been digested; but Judd manages to make it work-not by seeking to unify its ideas, but rather by heightening its contradictions. The opening 45 seconds or so set out the general approach. The hard, bright, sharply profiled opening leads you to expect a tough modernist reading; but in a bold stroke of interpretive alchemy, the ground shifts and the musical landscape is transformed by an infusion of rubato and portamento that seems the product of a different aesthetic world entirely. And so it goes, as Judd plays up contrasts of color, dynamics, and tempo in ways that always keep us on the edge. Those looking for a smooth ride may be disconcerted-but few performances I know so clearly elucidate the music’s bifurcated character.

It’s not clear why the Minuet has been interpolated into the middle of the Characteristic Pieces, but otherwise the production is fine. All in all, a more interesting CD than might at first appear. Warmly recommended.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, October 2006

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.

Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, September 2006

ELGAR LITE: Forget Sir Edward Elgar’s reputation for a stiff upper lip: This is the British composer at his most ingratiating, from the rousing Froissart Overture to the gentle May Song and Carissima. And who knew Sir Edward had composed so charming a Romance for bassoon and orchestra? This is music to lower your blood pressure and put a gentle smile on your face.

WELL DONE: British conductor James Judd seems to have this music in his veins, and the New Zealand orchestra nicely balances energy and intimate elegance.

BOTTOM LINE: One wishes only that the Chanson de Matin would move along a little less distractedly. Good sound, as we’ve come to expect from Naxos.

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, September 2006

The Lighter Elgar. No, that is not the name of this new CD, but it is nominally the subject matter of it and has been for a number of discs across the years. The actual title belongs to an LP by Neville Marriner and the Northern Sinfonia that first appeared in 1970 and is now available on EMI Classics. The term “lighter” as popularly applied to Elgar seems to encompass a number of works which the more perceptive Elgarian would subdivide by categories such as “salon”, “ceremonial,” “early mature” (see Froissart) and even a work like the Romance for Bassoon, which while small, is not light.

The bassoon was an instrument that Elgar could actually play and it is good to think that he did not totally forget this instrument so comparatively bereft of repertoire. As Op. 62 the Romance falls right between two of the composer’s most significant works, the Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony. While not as substantial as those two giants, it demonstrates equally well both Elgar’s capacity for evocative orchestration and his nostalgic or wistful tendencies. James Judd is fully aware of this and treats the piece with the care it deserves, although I found his tendency to accompany rather perfunctorily took away from the overall impression. The playing of Preman Tilson is quite good, however and he compares well as soloist with Michael Chapman on the above-mentioned Northern Sinfonia disc. As throughout much of this disc, the woodwinds of the orchestra produce a wonderful sound.

At least as small and definitely lighter are the three pieces May Song, Carissima and the Minuet. Lest one think that all of Elgar’s concern with lighter music occurred in his early days, the Minuet was written in 1901 and not orchestrated until 1928, while Carissima was written in 1913 and is one of the earliest pieces, if not the earliest pieces, created for recording purposes. Judd does very well with this brevity. It demonstrates Elgar’s ability to take a form and material that would be pleasant and nothing more in the hands of another composer and imbue it with a degree of emotion one would never have suspected. The conductor handles this small work very well, indeed this is one of his strongest performances here, although Marriner and Daniel Barenboim on his old Columbia LP both got more out of it. Judd is more perfunctory in the May Song, but his Minuet Op. 21 is the best I have heard.

The two Chansons Op. 15 have always seemed like salon music to most listeners, but Elgar thought enough of them to orchestrate them a dozen years after their composition. Perhaps Judd thinks that by stretching the note values he will make them sound more important, but this produces a rather plodding Chanson de Matin—not the type of morning one might want to wake up to. His weighty style is better applied to the Chanson de Nuit, which he rounds off beautifully. Even earlier in order of composition is the Three Characteristic Pieces Op. 10, which first appeared as a Suite in D in 1882-4 and was later arranged and orchestrated in 1899. The Mazurka receives a good performance, but Judd does extremely well with the other two pieces. He appreciates the underlying humor of the Serenade Mauresque—the piece begins as a typical example of 19th century Orientalism, but develops quickly but imperceptibly into something that could only come out of Worcester at the same period of time. Judd brings out the foreshadowings (at 2:40) of the means by which Elgar would evoke his past in so many works. Contrasts is exactly that—an 18th century Gavotte and a then-contemporary one, although the old part sounds more like Bach than Rameau. Judd does well with this.

The Three Bavarian Dances are orchestrations of three of the six choral/orchestral sections of From the Bavarian Highlands Op.27. The orchestra acquits itself well however and this is the big moment for the horns. Finally, though it starts off the disc, is the overture Froissart, a piece that is neither miniature nor light and indeed was Elgar’s first substantial orchestral work. This is a work that can sound too long for its material, but Judd has a good overall conception of the piece and stresses those aspects that an 1890 listener would have found “modern”.

In all of the above music the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra demonstrates its ability to produce an exciting and varied sound. Especially impressive are the woodwind, which excel the rest of the ensemble in both beauty of playing and ability to follow their conductor. As mentioned above, the horns are also impressive. This orchestra has a great future in front of it. Unfortunately, the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington produces a rather blank sound which the woodwinds can surmount, which the rest of the orchestra cannot. This disc is the third that the orchestra and James Judd have recorded of Elgar’s music and the conductor is doing great work for some of the lesser-known works of Elgar.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group