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Arnold Bax - The Complete Music for Viola and Piano/Harp Ivo-Jan van der Werff (viola); Simon Marlow (piano); Hugh Webb (Harp) Koch Classics 3-6762-2 (Recorded St George's Brandon Hill, Bristol, March 1998)

Fantasy Sonata. Gunter Pretzel (viola), Rosemarie Schmid-Münster (harp). Cavalli CD: CCD 237 ('Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeit'). With works by Jan Bach, Fredrik Schwenk and Sofia Gubaidulina.


Last Modified August 1, 2001 

Koch Classics 3-6762-2

Review by Graham Parlett

There is something satisfying about having a composer's complete works for a particular medium on one CD, especially when the works are as well played and recorded as in this new release from Koch. Bax's interest in the viola was aroused when he was a student at the Royal Academy of Music by the presence on the staff of the great English violist Lionel Tertis. It was Tertis who gave the first performances of the three pieces with piano recorded here, as well as the Phantasy for viola and orchestra, and it was for him that Bax began writing a second Viola Sonata in about 1933, though it was finally abandoned, with some of the material being used in the Sixth Symphony.

The English violist Ivo-Jan van der Werff and his regular partner, the pianist Simon Marlow, give a very good performance of the pithy Legend (1929). This has been recorded five times before, most successfully by Watson Forbes and Leonard Cassini on a long-deleted LP, and by Steven Dann and Bruce Vogt on a CBC disc. Indeed the Koch and CBC versions are remarkably similar in interpretation, as suggested by their comparative timings: one is 9'49, the other 9'59. The opening, for piano alone, with its inexorable bass ostinato comes across very strikingly here, and it is clear that both players are well attuned to Bax's sound-world throughout.

The Sonata for viola and piano (1922) is one of Bax's best chamber works, and it is strange that this is only its second 'modern' recording on CD, the other version being on the obscure German label Tacet (TACET 35). There it is coupled with works by Bach, Hummel and Brahms and is not as good a performance as this new one, though the booklet is of interest in that it is adorned with quotations from Bax's poetry. There have been five recordings on LP or cassette, including one by violist Michael Ponder, who is the producer of this new CD. One of the best was the first, by Herbert Downes and Leonard Cassini, which came out in the 1960s but has not reappeared on CD. The old 78s of William Primrose and Harriet Cohen have been reissued on CD, and then of course there is the CD version containing a performance by Lionel Tertis and the composer himself. This is obviously of enormous historical interest and is a robust performance, though I find it too rushed and perfunctory in the slower parts. In the outer movements this new version is very good indeed. The fast middle movement is also well played, though I feel that it could have done with a little more abandon. The tempo marking is Allegro energico ma non troppo presto, so there is no need to play it too fast, but there are one or two places where there is a slowing down, and it might have been more effective to throw caution to the winds and let rip; the old Downes/Cassini LP had the edge on it in terms of sheer devilry. But on the whole a fine performance of a great work.

The Fantasy Sonata for harp and viola (1927) is one of Bax's most frequently recorded scores. There have been no fewer than twelve versions all told, including one with piano instead of harp. Most have been very good, especially the American RCM version with Marcia Dickstein and Evan Wilson, and the cheap Naxos one with Alison Nicholls and Ashan Pillai. Here the harpist is Hugh Webb, whose Baxian credentials are well displayed in the Chandos recording of the Concerto for seven instruments. It is difficult to fault these two players, who play with great passion and sensitivity throughout. Interesting to note that Webb plays the chords at the start of the third movement unarpeggiated, whereas other harpists (though not all), clearly arpeggiate each one.

Finally we come to the Concert Piece for viola and piano, which dates from 1904 and is so far the earliest of Bax's scores to have been commercially recorded. I have to confess that I find it a rather dull work. The opening idea is promising, and there is a pleasant Irish-sounding 'second subject', but Bax's youthful propensity for aimless chromatic doodling gets the better of him and there seems to be too much hanging around waiting for something to happen; the earlier Violin Sonata in G minor of 1901 is more concise and effective in this respect. His piano writing here is also surprisingly jejune compared with that of the near contemporary A Celtic Song Cycle, and at 16 minutes the piece is far too long. It is useful, of course, to have it on disc for reference purposes (the score, after all, is tucked away, unpublished, in the basement of the Boole Library in Cork), but I cannot imagine that I shall return to it very often.

Ivo-Jan van der Werff has an exceptionally pure and secure viola tone, and both Hugh Webb and Simon Marlow are worthy partners. With informative and well-written notes by Lewis Foreman (who else?), this is an excellent release, which can happily take its place on the shelf next to the fine ASV CD containing Bax's complete works for cello and piano; and at such a bargain price (under £6 in the UK) nobody with an interest in the viola or the composer should be without it. I hope van der Werff can be persuaded to record Bax's Phantasy for viola and orchestra, a work that can be crippled by being played too ponderously, as in the only commercial recording so far (on Conifer).

It is unfortunate for the German Cavalli label that this fine but inexpensive CD should have been issued at the same time as its own full-price version of the Fantasy Sonata. This is played by two members of the Debussy-Trio München, who have already recorded an enjoyable performance of the Elegiac Trio (CCD 220). The performance of the Fantasy Sonata is also very good, with plenty of fire in the more energetic parts and poetry in the slow movement. I especially liked the quasi-improvisatory passage between the first and second movements, which sounds much more natural than in most other recordings. The recording quality is not quite as good as with the Koch, and the other works on the disc are a mixed bunch, of which the American Jan Bach's imaginative treatment of the Welsh tune 'Eisteddfod' is the most immediately attractive.

Copyright ©  Graham Parlett

Review by Christopher Webber

In reviewing Bax's works, it's not often we are in a position to appeal to authentic performance practise, but in the case of the Viola Sonata we may do precisely that. True, the sound of the great dedicatee, Lionel Tertis, thrashing it out with the composer himself at the piano sometimes feels uncomfortably like two prize-fighters slugging it out for three submissions or a knockout; but what comes across most positively is the sheer tonal heft of Tertis's husky instrument, and the no-nonsense musical logic of this great sonata. William Primrose, in duo with Harriet Cohen, was to bring greater tonal refinement to the piece, perhaps at the expense of some imaginative fantasy. Of later partnerships, Herbert Downs and Leonard Cassini, on an old Revolution LP came close to the ideal combination of character and poetry in this intensely memorable but elusive work.

How does the newcomer square up to such distinguished predecessors? Ivo-Jan van der Werff, violist of the Medici Quartet, possesses a flawless technical security which makes for pleasant listening. Is his playing almost too smooth? Tertis used a larger instrument, and van der Werff's tone has the subtle refinement of a violin, oversweet for such craggy, wide-ranging music. A matter of taste, possibly; but Bax gauged the metal of the virtuosi he wrote for to a nicety, and this simply sounds too bland. There's a lack of angry fire in the fierce middle movement, and a lack of detailed responsiveness in the elegiac outer ones. Pianist Simon Marlow similarly fights shy of dangerous play.

The later Legend, an astonishingly compact piece of top-drawer Bax, has likewise received more characterful advocacy elsewhere. The opening piano theme sounds blustering rather than baleful, the later stages of this moving journey out of the gloom towards sunset-resignation lack something in inner serenity. The Fantasy Sonata, written for harpist Maria Korchinska with Raymond Jeremy - a violist of notably smaller, more focussed tone than Tertis - comes off best. Van der Werff, most naturally balanced against harpist Hugh Webb, plays here with a gentle, unforced poetry which is most touching. More characterful than Mobius on Naxos, more fastidious than the French duo on Arion, this is perhaps the most satisfying account on disc of this delicate chamber-tracery.

Yet the real prize for Baxians here is the first ever recording of the Concert Piece. Like the near-contemporary orchestral tone-poem Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan, this 1904 Duo is revealed as a work of some maturity, Bax in full Celtic flood before the Russian Experience broadened his artistic and personal armoury. Its 16' span contains - just - a welter of passionate feeling which struck the London critics as revolutionary at the time, and it comes across with undimmed lyric fire. Again, it's possible to imagine stronger characterisation and rhapsodic freedom than van der Werff and Marlow manage - there's a want of playfulness in scherzoid moments - but in general this is expertly done.

It's good to have such a substantial work available on CD; and this rarity, together with the understated sensitivity of the Fantasy Sonata, makes the Koch-Schwann disk a desirable collection. Michael Ponder, who recorded the Viola Sonata himself some years ago with John Alley, provides the players with a well-balanced, pleasing sound throughout. Lewis Foreman's very thorough notes contain one mystifying suggestion: the quotation from Robin Hill's description of a "truly diabolic coda" to the Viola Sonata surely refers to its central, and not its final movement as Foreman seems to suggest here.

Copyright ©  Christopher Webber