Fanfare

As its title might suggest, the centerpiece of this unusual and enterprising album of English music is Elgar’s own arrangement for solo piano—designed for the once immensely lucrative home market—of his Enigma Variations, the work that announced the arrival of the first great English composer since the death of Henry Purcell two centuries before. Elspeth Wyllie’s performance is an excellent one, alert to the wide range of expressive details—her sensitive molding of the moody theme is a joy from beginning to end—and fully aware that it’s not her job to make the piano sound like Elgar’s infinitely rich orchestra. Instead, she shapes each of the variations in purely pianistic terms and in general succeeds brilliantly. The mild stutter in “Dorabella” comes off with unaffected charm, and even “Nimrod” works better than you might think as a kind of British Chopin nocturne. Predictably, some of the more energetic items really call out for the full orchestral treatment, especially “G.R.S.” and its incomparably boisterous portrait of the subject’s bulldog Dan. The only serious miscalculation comes in the final “E.D.U.”—not derived, as the notes suggest, from the German spelling (Eduard) of the composer’s Christian name, but “Edoo,” Alice Elgar’s pet name for her husband—in which the Elgarian rubato is applied so liberally that the phrases frequently threaten to fall apart. That aside, it’s a superlative performance.

The remainder of the album is taken up with music played with some of Wyllie’s favorite colleagues, musicians who “share an interest in championing less well-known repertoire in concert programs.” The first is the moving Elegy for Cello and Piano by Kenneth Leighton, written two years before his extraordinary Cello Concerto helped launch his career in 1955. It’s an intricate, gravely beautiful work given a performance whose breadth and sensitivity rivals that of the pioneering recording made by Rafael Wallfisch, currently available from Naxos (8.571358). York Bowen’s delectably pungent Flute Sonata responds well to Claire Overbury’s flowing yet witty approach, especially in the concluding Allegro con fuoco which captures even more of that gentlemanly nervous energy than the Endymion Ensemble did in their hard-to-find Dutton recording.

The real surprise here is Nicholas Sackman’s Folio I, a suite of six brief piano pieces designed for his teenage children to play. Tuneful, ingratiating, yet rhythmically quirky—purposefully so, according to Wyllie, in order “to provide challenge and interest”—it’s an engaging collection, especially the movements called “Switchback,” “Jumping Jack,” and “Rum Baba.” Wyllie plays them all as though they had been written for her, in spite of the obvious fact that they weren’t.

The album concludes with a pair of dark and lovely songs by Edmund Rubbra, the long-time Oxford don and one of the most uncompromising symphonists of the 20th century. “Upon the Crucifix” and “On the Reed of Our Lord’s Passion” are settings of two sonnets by William Alabaster, the Elizabethan diplomat, poet, and convert to Catholicism whose beliefs led to several stays in prison. Rubbra’s settings could not be more apt nor more quietly intense, and the performances are marred only by mezzo-soprano Catherine Backhouse’s at times uncomfortably wide vibrato, the only minor drawback—along with that taffy-pull “E.D.U.”—to an unusual and rewarding collection.

—Jim Svejda