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Arnold Bax - Three Violin Sonatas
Violin Sonata No.2 in D (1915, rev. 1921); Violin Sonata No.3 (1927); Violin Sonata in F (1928 - World premiere recording)
Robert Gibbs (violin), Mary Mei-Loc Wu (piano)

THE SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE

Last Modified March 5, 2001 


ASV CD DCA 1098

ASV CD DCA 1098

Review by Graham Parlett

Bax wrote five violin sonatas in all: an early one-movement Sonata in G minor (1901), the three published ones, and another unpublished one dating from 1928. This new release couples Nos. 2 and 3 with the first ever recording of "No.4' (the Sonata in F), and it is good to know that Robert Gibbs and Mary Mei-Loc Wu are also planning to record all the composer's remaining violin works for ASV.

Only a few months ago I was praising Tasmin Little's excellent recording of No.2 (on the GMN label), and now we have another, quite different version which complements that performance. The newcomers are altogether more relaxed in their playing than Little and Roscoe. Speeds are generally slower in the fast sections, the playing is less incisive and accented and more rhapsodical, and less is made of the dynamic contrasts throughout. The second movement (entitled "The Grey Dancer in the Twilight') is very much slower and more dreamlike, and while there is not much to choose between them in the slow movement, the fourth movement (which begins in 11/8 time) again has none of the urgency of the GMN recording. (Incidentally the direction that the fourth movement should be played without pause after the third ("attacca' in the score) is ignored here.) Both approaches to the work are valid, I think. Tasmin Little plays the sonata for all its worth, making the most of its wide range of moods, and her intonation is superb; but if you feel like listening to it when you are in a more mellow, relaxed frame of mind, then this new recording will give pleasure. In other words, buy both versions!

It seems extraordinary that Bax's Third Sonata is now receiving only its second commercial recording ever. The old mono LP of Henry Holst and Frank Merrick was only available briefly in the 1960s on Merrick's own label, while a non-commercial recording dating from the 1930s with May Harrison and Charles Lynch was issued on CD a few years ago but is disfigured by missing passages and poor sound. The first of the two movements is a strange mixture of harmonic acerbity and reminiscences of Irish folk music. The second subject is an Irish-sounding melody similar to the one in the first movement of the Sonata for flute and harp (which itself is reminiscent of "Down by the Sally Gardens'). It is introduced (as with so many second subjects in Bax's chamber works) by the piano before being taken up by the violin. The movement also contains some strange passages in harmonics and some "senza misura', quasi improvisatory sections, where the time signature is momentarily dropped, an idea that the composer uses in the near contemporary The Poisoned Fountain for two pianos. The return of the second subject on violin with arpeggiated piano chords is most affecting, and the movement ends in tranquillity.

The second movement is one of Bax's wild Irish dances (like the middle movement of the Viola Sonata). This is contrasted with a withdrawn but still troubled central section that can also be paralleled in other works. By the time Holst and Merrick came to make their recording, they were no spring chickens and inevitably they found the frenzied second movement rather taxing. The youthful Mary Mei-Loc Wu and Robert Gibbs, in contrast, play it for all its worth. This is exciting playing with plenty of adrenalin flowing, and when they reach the passage marked "planxty' (a wild Irish dance in 6/8 time) the atmosphere is quite manic, rather like Bartók in similar vein. A vivid performance of a fine and neglected work.

   The last piece on this CD is the first ever recording of the Sonata in F, which was never played during Bax's lifetime and has only ever been performed once before in public, as part of a lecture-recital at the British Music Information Centre in 1983. Baxians will instantly recognise the work as the original version of the Nonet (1930). The first movement is the same as the later arrangement but the second incorporates extra material that was subsequently cut, including a stomping bass theme on the piano and a trill-laden quasi liturgical idea on the violin. Although the Nonet arrangement has the advantage of a wider range of tone colours, the violin-and-piano version also has much to commend it, and I hope that the manuscript will be published one day so that other performers can take it up.

Listening to this CD, I was struck by the huskiness of Robert Gibbs's violin tone in the lower register, rather reminiscent of a viola, though I am sure this has no connection with the fact that the producer and engineer, Michael Ponder, is himself a fine violist. It suits Bax's music well, I think. The sound quality of the recording is good. Having heard a live performance of the youthful G minor Sonata from these two artists in 1990, I very much look forward to hearing the next instalment in the series, which will probably also include the First Sonata (perhaps also its original slow movement and finale) and the shorter Legend and Ballad.

  Copyright ©  Graham Parlett

 




Review by Christopher Webber

These are fine times for lovers of Bax's chamber music. Hot on the heels of Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe's heartfelt reading of the autumnal 2nd Violin Sonata for NMC comes this newcomer from ASV. From their first, fiery plunge into the "November Woods" motif which haunts this long and sinewy work, it is clear that Robert Gibbs and Mary Mei-Loc Wu are a partnership to reckon with. Gibbs's playing has a dark-grained beauty of Viola-like intensity, and the power of Bax's opening paragraphs are beautifully realised by the pair.

In tone and tempi their reading stands midway between the absorbing, poetic tautness of Gruenberg and McCabe on Chandos, and the more extreme speeds the Little/Roscoe duo adopt so convincingly for ECN. Not that there is anything middle-of-the-road about Gibbs and Wu. Their performance is cogent and warm throughout, and I find Gibbs's playing in particular more sheerly lovely than either of his rivals. What is marginally lacking is dramatic contrast, heightened shifts in mood. The "Grey Dancer in the Twilight" here is very beautiful, but perhaps in the last resort lacking the baleful gleam that Gruenberg and McCabe bring to it.

This new ASV disc is a prime recommendation in any case, presenting as it does the first modern recording of the underrated 3rd Sonata and the first ever of the "4th Sonata" - unpublished because swiftly orchestrated as the Nonet, almost itself a chamber violin concerto. We may miss the gorgeous sunset-glow of Bax's orchestration, but perhaps this original version points up the high thematic quality and compressed formal logic of his material even more boldly.

The almost equally compact 3rd Sonata has a Szymanowkian sensuality about it. The 2nd movement is memorable, an exhilarating mix of wild dance and meditation. In truth, the 1st movement suffers from a potentially inert main theme a la Delius which Gibbs and Wu don't bring fully to life. Gibbs's phrasing in both the later sonatas can be a mite four-square, his cadences occasionally too abrupt. The partnership give me the impression they haven't quite absorbed these two works into the bloodstream so fully as they have the 2nd.

Michael Ponder's ASV recording leaves me in two minds. I've never heard a  solo violin captured so gorgeously; Gibbs's rich tone and sensitive dynamics are  thrillingly present. But he is close up, and Wu's piano sounds marginally  distant - even boxy in the 3rd Sonata - compared against the better-balanced  Chandos and ECN sound pictures. Through no fault of hers, the pianist's  contribution sometimes sounds secondary. Lewis Foreman's notes are full, and  appropriately exploratory for the 3rd and "4th" sonatas. In sum, despite minor  reservations, the performances are far from routine, and Gibbs's playing makes  for an experience much rarer than that.


Copyright ©  Christopher Webber