October 12, 2006


Elgar: Piano Music. Ashley Wass, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Offenbach: Piano Works, Volume 2. Marco Sollini, piano. CPO. $16.99.

     Anyone who thinks classical piano music must by definition be serious and heavy should spend a few minutes with these CDs.  A few minutes are all that will be required – between them, these two CDs contain only one piece that is more than 10 minutes long.  These are all works of more charm than substance, works never intended to cement their composers’ reputations or to storm the heights of musical accomplishment – but planned merely to provide some enjoyment for a little while.  And perhaps “merely” is the wrong word: these were not time wasters but time fillers in an age before television, before non-participatory entertainment, when small groups gathered around the piano to enjoy themselves by playing and talking well into the night.

     Edward Elgar is known today for his large-scale orchestral works, and indeed they provide the most important part of his legacy.  But thinking of Elgar in purely monumental terms misses the point, as Ashley Wass shows with his adept handling of works that Elgar composed as early as 1882 (when he was 25) and reworked as late as 1930 (he died in 1934).  One piece is called Une Idylle, but several have an idyllic character, such as Dream Children, Carissima, May Song and Douce Pensée (Rosemary).  There is somewhat more verve in Echo’s Dance, which Elgar adapted from his ballet, The Sanguine Fan (what a title!).  There is an interesting melding of the exotic and the properly English in Sérénade Mauresque, the second of Elgar’s Three Characteristic Pieces.  And there is pure charm in the early Sonatina in G Major.  Also included here, and played with panache by Wass, is Elgar’s own piano transcription of his Enigma Variations – a piece that takes up almost as much time on the CD as all the others put together.  This well-known orchestral showpiece sounds a bit thin on the piano: a listener familiar with the work will keep trying to hear the broad strokes of Elgar’s orchestration.  Like all the pieces on this CD, the piano version of the Enigma Variations is interesting and pleasant to hear occasionally, but is unlikely to become a staple of the piano repertoire or of most people’s everyday listening.

     Jacques Offenbach, for his part, never intended his piano works to have any particular staying power.  In fact, he reused themes, sections of pieces, and sometimes whole works as the occasion demanded (giving a piece a different title when he played it in a new city, whose audiences would not have heard it before).  Offenbach also used his little piano pieces to pay tribute to his wife and the other women in his life – not only lovers but also theatrical performers.  Marco Sollini gives Offenbach’s brief pieces – there are 16 on the new CPO release – just as much attention and seriousness as they deserve, and no more.  It is possible to have analytical fun with these trifles if one wishes – for example, by noting that the waltz Le Fleuve d’or and the Polka du mendiant (“Beggar’s Polka”) are based on the same melodic material.  But Offenbach himself would likely have dismissed the notion of paying too much attention to these works.  They are for enjoyment only.  Sollini makes all of them enjoyable, from the moderately well known (the waltzes Abendblätter and Les Belles Américaines) to the very little known (the polka Souvenirs de Londres and the waltz Les Contes de la Reine de Navarre) to the entirely unknown (Valse composée au château du Val le 9 août 1845, which exists only in an autograph copy).  There is nothing here to strain the ears, and much to delight them.

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