Like many a composer, Edward Elgar has his popular works that are almost always exclusively recorded. Pomp and Circumstance and the Enigma Variations tend to be the usual pair. However, Elgar's own piano arrangement of these Variations is somewhat rare, and in my humble opinion, I believe the piano arrangement is slightly superior to the orchestral version so many are used to. In addition to this piano arrangement, this recording also features some of Elgar's original piano miniatures or transcriptions of lesser-known compositions. Unfortunately, they barely glimmer at all next to the mighty Helios, the powerfully radiant Enigma Variations. Overall, Ashley Wass, esteemed in my view for his Bax and Franck interpretations, brings a level of emotional concentration and technical finesse to all of these works.
Although the puzzling initials of each variation have been solved, the "enigmatic" theme and the character of the Enigma Variations are wholly mysterious. Of all the Elgar music I've heard, I believe the main theme of this work is his finest creation. Distinguished for its haunting beauty and simplicity, this theme is the most memorable and pleasing theme from any of the music on this recording. Elgar's variation after his wife's initials is surely the most profound and passionate of them all. The orchestral version hints at tenderness and warmth, but in the dynamic depths of the piano, Wass conjures the utmost sorrow from the piano's registers. After this, the continuously original and contrasting variations speak for themselves. The fourth, seventh and eleventh variations erupt with volcanic energy through Wass's virtuosity. The ninth variation, known as "Nimrod," emits a magisterial air and glorious virility; Wass's muscular delivery towards the end is highly satisfying. Similarly, the Finale reaches a plane of sonority that the orchestra is incapable of reaching. From the pianissimo nuances of the recurring main theme to the explosive passagework surrounding it, this music seems much better suited to the piano.
As for the other pieces here, the miniatures, I cannot say an abundance of great things about them. There are a few jewels, but nothing of startling originality. The Sonatina that Elgar wrote for his niece is tranquil enough, but not that memorable. "Dream Children" fares a little better, especially in the Andantino, an enchanting work akin to Schumann. "May Song" and "Carissima" are two delightful miniatures of pleasantly simple ideas in the Romantic vein. The "Serenade Maresque" proves to be a melodic little trifle of Spanish flavor with tinges of a Chopin Mazurka. However, the rest of these pieces are too homogenous to make any valuable distinctions in this review: they are full of average lyricism but hardly any contrast or drama.
Bottom line: While the miniatures on this recording are not that outstanding, Ashley Wass's full-blooded and heart-felt performance of the Enigma Variations earns this recording a 5-star rating. As beloved as the original orchestral version is, there are melodic nuances and expressive details that can only be heard through the piano.