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Penguin Guide, January 2009

It is strange, when Elgar was a master at writing idiomatically for every instrument of the orchestra, that he had little feeling for the piano. Nevertheless this collection of some of his lighter piano pieces…are treasurable, particularly in such sensitive hands as those of Ashley Wass. First-rate sound.

Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, July 2007

Sir Edward Elgar would probably be taken more seriously today if he hadn't composed a bunch of marches titled Pomp and Circumstance. Between that and affecting the look of a country squire, the English composer, born 150 years ago last month, has been misunderstood as representing everything smug and stuffy in British life.

In truth, he was quite the outsider. He was the son of a provincial tradesman and lacked a university education. Only in his late 50s, after he'd been acclaimed in Germany, was he knighted.

Yes, Elgar could put pomp and circumstance, splendidly, into music. But there's so much more in, say, his two symphonies, two of the greatest of the 20th century: an orchestral brilliance to rival Strauss', a sophisticated complexity of textures, nervous energy spelled by oases of out-of-body beauty.

British conductors like Barbirolli and Boult have often embraced the grandeur and nostalgia at the expense of Elgar's excitability. Indeed, the late Sir Georg Solti seems unique among modern conductors in having studied and tried to re-create something of the electricity of Elgar's 1930s recordings. Now beautifully refurbished, Solti's 1972 recording of the First Symphony sounds much better than on an earlier two-disc release.

Solti adds two minutes to Elgar's unsentimental 10-minute timing for the slow movement, but it's so lovingly shaped that one almost doesn't mind. Elsewhere, the fiery Hungarian conductor plays up the sheer energy and orchestral virtuosity, quite to Elgar's benefit. The 1979 recording of the most Straussian scores, the Italian-homage In the South, is stunning.

Elgar's piano music is far more modest in scope and intent. Indeed, much of what Ashley Wass offers on his new Naxos disc qualifies as salon music. But it's lovely, charming stuff, and Mr. Wass' generous rubato sounds just right.

Elgar's own transcription of his Enigma Variations works better than you'd think, once past Mr. Wass' lugubrious statement of the theme. The G.R.S. variation, supposedly portraying an organist's bulldog scurrying down to a river, is dispatched with a virtuoso's skill. Sonics are superb.

Colin Anderson
Fanfare, April 2007

In theory, Enigma Variations shouldn't work on a piano; after all, it's so wonderfully expressed on the expanse of the orchestra. But Elgar's own version for the instrument, aided and abetted by Ashley Wass, who has been performing untold wonders on behalf of British piano music for Naxos, is a beautifully judged rendition-full of expression, heart, and character. This makes for revealing listening; very familiar and much loved music heard in black and white form, in one sense, and also opening up its workings and construction in another. It's very interesting; Wass gives an interpretation rather than a play through, and he has the virtuosity and insight to make viable his nearly 33­minute traversal. The orchestra is missed, of course, and sometimes very noticeably; nevertheless, this version gives the ears a cleansing and shows the music as still very affecting, and, from Wass, genuinely nobilmente at the close.

It's a shame that Wass doesn't include Allegro de concert, there's room, but the Elgar miniatures are all very pleasing. The first movement of the Sonatina makes a lovely, wistful opening, and the first section of Dream Children, in piano form, reminds one of Chopin. Put simply, this is all lovely music, inimitable, and is played with style and affection by Wass. Good sound: intimate and truthful.

Jed Distler, March 2007

In days of yore, when the piano served as ye olde home entertainment center, a great demand existed for small pieces that were easy on the ear and required from the pianis just enough ability to get around the keyboard. Like many composers, Elgar was not averse to earning a quick buck, and he happily churned out such keyboard fluff or revamped pre-existing compositions when he was not writing symphonies, oratorios, and other serious fare.

Yet even the slightest piano trifles can sound like mini-masterpieces when the performer takes the trouble to play them artistically. And that's precisely what Ashley Wass does. His instinctive, natural sounding rubato and gift for lyrical inflection ennoble pieces such as Une idylle (originally for violin and piano) and Carissima. The Sonatina's brisk second movement is imaginatively pointed, and seems to dance off the page.

Although the Enigma Variations' textual complexity and orchestral ingenuity are considerably compromised in Elgar's keyboard reworking (those horrid silent-movie tremolos in the finale!), much of the music proves quite effective in purely pianistic terms. For example, you might consider Variation Eleven (G.R.S.) the love child of Brahms and Rachmaninov, while Variation Three (R.B.T.) takes on a more austere personality. Without the orchestra's sustaining power, the theme and the famous Ninth Variation (Nimrod) can easily fall apart, yet Wass' concentrated phrasing, chord voicings, and control of dynamics substantiate his slow tempos. There's enough Elgar piano music to fill another volume; will Naxos and Wass follow suit.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, February 2007

The prize here is Elgar’s own piano transcription of the Enigma Variations. This gets the very occasional outing in concert, though admittedly in very out of the way concerts. Having recently listened to a two-piano recording of the Grieg Piano Concerto, and to the Elgar First Symphony in piano reduction I was curious to see – and hear – how pianistic or un-pianistic the variations would turn out to be.

The answer is, on the whole, that this is a perfectly workable transcription, though one not always helped by Wass’s choice of tempo. The Theme is ponderous and suffers from an advanced case of phrase droop. C.A.E. isn’t sufficiently characterised so as to allow differentation from the opening theme – a dose of the pianistic equivalent of Toscanini or Monteux would have helped tremendously here. Once past these moments though and things are very much better. H.D.S.-P emerges as a surprisingly toccata-like affair in Wass’s hands. He drives into the striding left hand patterns of W.M.B. and brings real dignity to R.P.A. He lays Isobel bare in the wittiest terms and also brings a commensurate sense of chordal warmth. Nimrod is not too slow and gathers in power and passion whilst we can trace Schumann in Dorabella, as we perhaps fail to do in the orchestral version. B.G.N. is impressive; Wass has it splendidly. And the finale is graced with dynamic tremolos to bring the work to a rousing conclusion.

Most of the other pieces are cut from salon cloth. The Sonatina is a generously generic two movement affair. Like his early violin pieces I think you’d be very hard pressed to name the composer. Its melody lines however are characteristically pretty and like those violin works – though much less technically demanding – it makes for pleasant listening. Dream Children survives the transcription even for those of us whose memories turn back to 78s. Une Idylle wears its frank salon charms with unselfconscious ease. May Song was written in 1901 – rather late to be hinting at Chopin, or perhaps it’s never too late to hint at Chopin. And Wass proves adept at Elgarian rubato in Sérénade Mauresque which moves easily and with grace at a good tempo.

The arrangements work well – even Carissima, which I thought wouldn’t. The recording at St George’s Church, Brandon Hill is excellent and the performances, once the Enigma has settled down, are thoroughly convincing.

Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, October 2006

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John France
MusicWeb International, October 2006

The recital opens with the 1930 revision of the early Sonatina. This lovely work was composed in 1887 for a certain May Grafton who happened to be Elgar’s niece. The work is in two movements: an Andantino and an Allegro. The latter is marked ‘as fast as you can’ which may have been a tall order for an eight year old girl. The first movement was originally an ‘allegretto’ but was revised to a slightly gentler pace.

Wass continues with an arrangement of the nostalgic Dream Children. This is a work that falls into the same category as the Wand of Youth Suites and Nursery Suite. It is perhaps epitomised by the inscription on the score, an excerpt from an essay by Charles Lamb: “We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all ..... We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been ...." Alice was perhaps to be identified in the composer’s mind with the Windflower – his ‘friend’ and ‘confidante’. Elgar once told Sir Sidney Colvin: "I am still at heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by Severnside, with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds and longing for something very great."

Une Idylle (1884) was originally composed for violin and piano and was a part of Elgar’s Op. 4 which also includes a Pastourelle and a Virelai. The three pieces were dedicated to a certain E.E in Inverness and were composed in remembrance of a holiday romance. The Idylle is a typical wistful piece that serves its intention well.

Wass then jumps forward some thirty years to 1913. The attractive Carissima was originally composed for small orchestra. Apparently the material was derived from some of Elgar's musical sketchbooks. Curiously this orchestral miniature was destined to become the first piece that Sir Edward recorded for HMV. As the programme notes point out this is a work that has ‘immediate appeal, in the composer’s unmistakable musical language’.

May Song was another piece originally composed for violin and piano and is a fine example of the better kind of salon music that was so prevalent at the turn of the century. The middle ‘trio’ is absolutely perfect in its balance and sentiment.

Douce Pensée (Rosemary) is another fine example of the genre and is subtitled ‘For Remembrance.’ But somehow I think this epithet may have been for the publisher and his public rather than representing the composer’s autobiographical thoughts.

I must confess that I just love Echo’s Dance (1917) from The Sanguine Fan. Once again we have a work that was inspired by Lady Alice Stuart-Wortley who is better known to Elgarians as ‘Windflower’. She suggested to the composer that he write a ballet: it was to be a charity affair raising funds to help with ‘Concerts at the Front’. The libretto is basically about Pan and Echo – playing their duets in a Watteau-inspired landscape. The title of the ballet derives from a painted fan by a local artist depicting the two gods. ‘Sanguine’ actually refers to a red chalk that was the artist’s medium - so is largely incidental to the plot of the ballet.

The last of the miniatures is the ‘Serenade mauresque’ which the programme notes suggest seems to drift back and forth between the shores of Spain and the Malvern Hills. It is the piece I least enjoyed yet the ‘English’ bit is quite attractive, the Spanish perhaps a bit derivative. It was the second of the Three Characteristic Pieces Op.10.

It is not necessary to discuss the Enigma Variations in any great detail as it is possibly one of the best known works by Elgar and in fact by any British composer. I was not too sure how to approach this piano ‘reduction’. Was it worth listening to? Or is it just a kind of study aid?

I was surprised to find out that there are at least two other versions currently available including Anthony Goldstone [MRCD94001] playing Elgar’s Broadwood piano and Maria Garzon on ASV [CDDCA1065] - so that gave me some confidence in the work. I was a bit concerned about the provenance of this transcription – was it by Elgar himself or by someone at a later date? A brief look at Elgar’s ‘Letters to his Publisher’ revealed that the piano version was presented to Novellos at the same time as the orchestral score.

Let me say straightaway that I was seriously impressed by the clarity of the work. The piano version, although obviously simplified, brings out lines of musical thought, harmonies and nuances that appear to be lost in the more complex orchestral score. Much as I love the orchestral version – especially when conducted by Sir Adrian Boult - I do feel that this piano transcription deserves a life of its own.

As with all CDs released by Anthony Wass the piano playing is excellent. As noted above, the structure of the Enigma Variations is revealed as I have never heard it before. He does not play the ‘salon’ pieces in a style that is patronising, but reveals the wistfulness and longing that are inherent in their style.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group