The music Elgar wrote for Powick Pauper Lunatic Asylum near Worcester while he was its bandmaster, over a five-year period from 1879, hardly reveals a crop of masterpieces. It mainly comprises dance music – an enlightened superintendent decreed Friday-night dancing for the inmates for its therapeutic effects. Still, as a not-so-humble British counterpart to the minuets and contredanses of Mozart and Haydn, should we not remember Elgar’s polkas, quadrilles and lancers? These dances were scored for ensembles of varying size – up to 19 players – and certainly have value as some of the earliest examples of his orchestral mastery; otherwise it’s his invention, both in instrumental texture and as a tunesmith, that proves to be impressive.
There are surprises (the Duett for trombone and double bass could almost be a lost movement from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella) and a few familiar faces (the fifth quadrille from the lively L’Assommoir (The Bludgeon), apparently named after the novel by Zola – reappears as ‘The Wild Bears’ in The Wand of Youth). But mainly what we have here is Elgar the entertainer, supplying his dance music to order. Barry Collett has been in the forefront of the revival of this repertoire, and the Innovation Chamber Ensemble (players drawn from the CBSO) play it with gusto and empathy.