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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Orchestral Miniatures
Froissart Overture (1890) [14:02]
May Song (1901) [4:04]
Carissima (1913) [3:44]
Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra Op. 62 (1910) [5:18]
Three Characteristic Pieces Op. 10 (1882-4/1899): No. 1: Mazurka [3:14]
Minuet Op. 21 (1897) [4:26]
Three Characteristic Pieces No. 2: Serenade Mauresque [5:30]
No. 3: Contrasts-The Gavotte [3:17]
Chanson de Matin Op. 15 No. 2 (1889-90) [3:37]
Chanson de Nuit Op. 15 No. 1 (1889-90) [4:26]
Three Bavarian Dances (fr. Op. 27) (1895-97) [12:15]
Preman Tilson (bassoon)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. 6-8 April 2004, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, NZ
NAXOS 8.557577 [64:04]
 


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. This work presented me with my largest complaint against Judd’s conducting, the phrasing was sloppy and the overall tempo too rushed. 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. However, I cannot give it a complete recommendation due to both the recording and the conductor’s tendency to attenuate when he should accelerate and vice versa.
 
William Kreindler
 

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