This is a difficult piece to get your head around: the concept is strange enough- an original 'Elgar' concerto derived from the abortive sketches, recorded improvisations and a more or less complete slow movement. Get beyond that idea and you're confronted with a work which has strong Elgarian content but none of the easy logic of either of the other 'true' Elgar concertos.
The precedent was set by Anthony Payne when he made his superb elaboration (completion) of the Third Symphony sketches: Such a fine job in fact that there is nothing to show the symphony as anything other than the real deal from the hands of the master. In this concerto Robert Walker has had the same role in bringing the piece to fruition and the work as we have it here is of normal concerto length. The CD booklet is at pains to indicate that, unlike the Third Symphony, almost all the Piano Concerto materials are Elgar's own.
This doesn't mean that the process was plain sailing. Walker, together with the soloist David Owen Norris have had several attempts at refining the score, including a disastrous outing at the Three Choirs Festival where the Piano Concerto was nearly 50 minutes long (the recording of that version of the piece has not been released.....):Hence more than the usual blood,sweat and tears!
Add into the mixture, just to complicate matters, Elgar's own ambivalence towards the piano. He was hardly a virtuoso on the keyboard (but he was'nt a virtuouso cellist either, yet still managed to produce the cellists' favourite concerto...)and his piano playing was described as indiosyncratic and 'orchestral', implying that he primarily used the instrument to try out various tone colours when composing. His compositions for solo piano are few and tend to be miniatures, though he did record several 'improvisations' straight to wax in 1930: Owen Norriss makes a convincing case for these being rather more through-composed than might at first be imagined, and fitting together with various sketches make a more wholehearted attempt at a Piano Concerto on Elgar's part than could previously have been discerned.
I have to say that this work is not likely to hit the mark on a single hearing. I am not convinced that the concerto, as recorded, makes the full leap into life that the Third Symphony does. However, the piece does become clearer with repeated listening, and it and I have reached an understanding over numerous hearings.
Perhaps it does not work so well because the piano part is not as demonstrative or sharply defined as the Violin or Cello Concertos: we can be thankful for the thematic material (including a Third Symphony theme), which is as vigorous and strong as anything in the established Elgar canon.
I do not believe, despite his involvement in the gestation of this work, that Owen Norris is as powerful a pianist as this music demands to make a true impact: we must wait and see if any other pianist takes up the challenge.In support, David Lloyd Jones and the BBC Concert Orchestra play with full conviction.
The accompanying programme provides Elgar afficionados with a few valuable rarities but the one real gem is Anthony Collins' impressive and moving 'Elegy for Elgar' written in 1942. The piece uses a thematic fragment from the Third Symphony as the basis for a taut and deeply-felt symphonic movement. A pity Collins did not write more in this vein.