REVIEWS: divine art dda 25145   'Enigmas'

CD cover

THE CHRONICLE:
This delightful album is out to coincide with Elgar's 160th birthday on 2nd June, and it's a recording of solo piano and chamber works, featuring Worcester's most famous son's own solo piano transcription of Enigma Variations.

The Review Corner are big fans of Elgar, having lived in Malvern, not too far from his grave at Little Malvern, and sometimes tramping the hills listening to him on a Sony cassette player.

This recording offers a fresh and different sound to the famous work, making it both cleaner and more intimate, Nimrod still being surprisingly uplifting. We confess to finding Elgar a little dusty of late, so this CD opens him up once again to repeated listening pleasure.

The Elgar is complemented by a collection of other work by British composers, such as Edwin York Bowen's Sonata For Flute And Piano and Kenneth Leighton's Elegy , but all of it is, as we say, rather delightful. A real treat.
Jeremy Condliffe

MUSICWEB (1):
I enjoyed Elgar's Enigma Variations , ‘dished up' by the composer himself for piano. I have bashed my way through ‘Nimrod' on the piano on several occasions, but the rest of the score is largely beyond my Grade 6½. Arguments could go either way about the ‘validity' or ‘need' for this transcription. I agree with the liner notes that this version allows the listener to concentrate on the musical structure of these variations without the ‘hindrance' of the masterly orchestration. The work can be approached with a ‘fresh intimacy.' It will never supplant the orchestral version, but it is a pleasure to hear. It is splendidly played here by Elspeth Wylie.

Kenneth Leighton's Elegy for cello and pianoforte, op.5 is an early work, dating from 1950 and was part of a discarded Viola Sonata (1949). It was written when the composer was only 21 years old. This was before the he studied with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome and began to assimilate Bergian serialism, neo-classicism and some post-Weberian techniques. The Elegy is characterised by a pastoral mood, which may have been influenced by Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi or RVW. I have noted before that this work does not use folk-song and certainly is not a rustic ramble. The music is introspective and consistently lyrical in mood.

It is a pity that the liner notes do not give a date for York Bowen's romantic Sonata for flute and piano, op.120. The listener needs to understand that this is a post-Second World War work composed in 1946. It is unashamedly romantic in effect. Clearly, this was not the direction that music was going in at that time, and one can begin to understand why it long-remained un-played. Bowen's career straddled much musical history: he was sixteen when Elgar premiered his Enigma Variations and Elvis Presley was at No.1 in the UK charts on the day he died. It is good that this composer, once disparagingly dubbed the ‘English Rachmaninov', is appreciated in our musically diverse era. I particularly enjoyed the ‘pastoral' mood of the slow movement which may or may not be English in inspiration. The general feel of this work is coloured by Mediterranean hues. It was dedicated to the flautist Gareth Morris (1920-2007).

Nicholas Sackman (b.1950) is an unknown name to me. I point the reader to the Wikipedia article for further information. Unfortunately, the link to the chronological list of his works is no longer working: neither is a link to his personal webpage. The present Folio I is a set of six short piano pieces that were composed for his ‘teenage children'. It includes imaginary titles such as ‘Switchback', ‘Jumping Jack' and ‘Rum Baba'. They are rather fun to listen to and are, as the liner notes suggest, ‘captivating' in effect.

The Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, op.87 (1955) for mezzo-soprano, viola and piano are beautifully and sensitively performed by Catherine Backhouse, Alexa Beattie and Elspeth Wylie. Mention should be made that Alabaster (1567-1640) was an English poet, playwright, and religious writer. Converted to Catholicism, he was imprisoned for his beliefs and reverted to Anglicanism. Listening to these beautiful songs, it is clear that Rubbra, a deeply religious man, had a great sympathy for these two poems.

As noted above, I felt that the liner notes could have given the dates of each work. I know that this information is usually available via a ‘quick' web-search. (In the case of the Sackman, even that option failed me). Other than that, they provide a helpful introduction to each work. They include a detailed presentation of the Enigma dedications and the text for the Alabaster poem.

The performance is superb in this eclectic selection of music. Elspeth Wylie plays for all the pieces. Violist Alexa Beattie makes a fine contribution to the Rubbra. I felt that the cellist, Hetti Price engaged well with the Kenneth Leighton and Claire Overbury gave an enchanting performance of the Bowen Flute Sonata. They are my two favourite numbers on the wide-ranging and thoroughly agreeable CD.
John France

MUSICWEB (2):
Generosity of duration contends with novelty of content in this fulsome collection.

I had misgivings about hearing Enigma in a version for solo piano. This reading accounts for approaching half the playing time on the disc so there was a fair bit at stake. In fact it works wonderfully well at least until the closing EDU variation where the 'transition' from orchestra to keyboard at times sounds pretty stilted. The gap between an essentially percussive instrument and the undulating orchestral oratory just cannot be bridged successfully at those points. The rest, and that's most of Enigma , works most eloquently and this deserves its own life in the concert hall. It was after all Elgar's own handiwork, prepared contemporaneously with the full score. Each variation has its own track.

The competition comes primarily from Ashley Wass on Naxos . One other critic, writing about the Wass, points out that the piano version can be heard on at least two other versions: Anthony Goldstone (MRCD94001) playing Elgar's Broadwood piano and Maria Garzon on ASV CDDCA1065. I have not heard the Wass or the other two but Wyllie has a firm yet sympathetically yielding grasp of this fine music and, apart from occasionally in EDU - a problem for all pianists - makes it sing without cloy or shudder.

The Leighton Elegy shines and comes across as a touching piece. It works well in the hands of Wyllie and Price.

Bowen's lambently romantic three-movement Flute Sonata is one of a clutch of 15-20 minute sonatas in this composer's catalogue. Its light-filled and faintly Gallic ways have attracted several recordings . This, from Claire Overbury and Elspeth Wyllie, is lovingly shaped. It proceeds on stylish toes - pearly and pointed rather than leaden.

The only music by a living British composer in this 78-minute collection is Nicholas Sackman's six-movement ten-minute suite. It is in tuneful mode: sec, witty, atmospheric, touching and making playfully inventive use of irregular rhythms. Sackman leads us around all sorts of unexpected twists and turns. The music half reminds me of Constant Lambert. Sackman is not over-represented in the catalogue although you can catch him on Metier and NMC and end up wanting to hear more.

Edmund Rubbra's Alabaster Sonnets I recall from an Alfreda Hodgson LP (Pearl SHE 559) but counter-tenor Mark Chambers also recorded them in the late 1990s on Deux-Elles 1012. Here I like the emphasis given to the viola. Catherine Backhouse also makes a strong impression but I could not always catch the words - fortunately they are set out in full on p.5 of the liner booklet.

The liner booklet, in English-only, is equal to the task. The music is engagingly profiled by Ms Wyllie. The Enigma friends 'portrayed within' are listed and each gets a short description. There are photos and brief bios of each musician.

Enigma works well and is accorded a natural voice that demands to be heard. The added works are also well worth your listening contemplation.
Rob Barnett

PIZZICATO:
To celebrate Edward Elgar's 160th birthday on 2 June 2017, Divine Art releases Elgar's own version for solo piano of the Enigma Variations. Elspeth Wyllie interprets them with very clear piano playing, somewhat sober and perhaps with not enough ‘cantabile'. The pianist succeeds well in the charming simplicity of ‘Folio I' from the British (born 1950) composer Nicholas Sackman.

In the remaining items, the pianist, who has made quite a name for herself, is a good partner to cellist Hetti Price in Kenneth Leighton's beautiful ‘Elegy' and to Claire Overbury in Edwin York Bowen's Flute Sonata, a lyrical composition with a very playful Allegro con fuoco finale.

Edmund Rubbra's ‘Two Sonnets by William Alabaster' end the program, but putting these two intricate pieces on the disc was not a good move, in order to make this music effective, it needs interpreters from a different level. For the rarely recorded version of the Enigma Variations, one finds a more musical interpretation with Maria Garzón on Heritage.
(awarded three stars)
Remy Franck