Elgar: Orchestral Minatures / Judd, New Zealand So

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The bonbons on this collection of “Orchestral Miniatures” have little to engage your intellect or emotions; but when played well, they can have the same kind of insinuating (although far from infectious) charm found in Victorian advertising circulars. They’re certainly played well by Judd and the New Zealanders, who—with their tasteful tempo-pulling and their sweet but never clingy string slides—convey the innocent spirit and velveteen textures with a remarkable period flavor. There’s snap and bluffness where required—say, in the first of the Characteristic Pieces or the beery conclusion to the Bavarian Dances. But for the most part, a light touch, even an intimacy, colors the music-making here. The Romance for Bassoon moves a bit further away from the palm court, but it looks back to the two Chansons more than it looks sideways to its contemporary, the Second Symphony—and its nostalgia, too, is eloquently captured.

Froissart, Elgar’s first truly Elgarian orchestral work, is the joker in this pack: at nearly a quarter of an hour it’s hardly a miniature; more important, it breaks free from the salon sensibility of the other repertoire on the disc. Judd’s acumen here is, if anything, even sharper. In lesser hands, Froissart can sound like a lumpy and ill-integrated piece, one in which the forward-looking ideas haven’t quite been digested; but Judd manages to make it work—not by seeking to unify its ideas, but rather by heightening its contradictions. The opening 45 seconds or so set out the general approach. The hard, bright, sharply profiled opening leads you to expect a tough modernist reading; but in a bold stroke of interpretive alchemy, the ground shifts and the musical landscape is transformed by an infusion of rubato and portamento that seems the product of a different aesthetic world entirely. And so it goes, as Judd plays up contrasts of color, dynamics, and tempo in ways that always keep us on the edge. Those looking for a smooth ride may be disconcerted—but few performances I know so clearly elucidate the music’s bifurcated character.

It’s not clear why the Minuet has been interpolated into the middle of the Characteristic Pieces, but otherwise the production is fine. All in all, a more interesting CD than might at first appear. Warmly recommended.

FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8557577

  • UPC: 747313257720

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Sir Edward Elgar

  • Conductor: James Judd

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Preman Tilson