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Sir Arnold Bax Website 2004

Review by  Graham Parlett  


Jeremy Limb, a great-grandson of Sir Arnold Bax, was born in 1971 and began learning the piano at the age of four; he later studied music at Oxford and the RCM. As well as being a very fine pianist he is a professional comedian and script-writer (he has written for Harry Enfield, among others) and is a member of the comedy trio The Trap. He has also made several tours with fellow ex-student Matthew Perret in an entertainment called ‘Play Wisty for Me’, based on the life of Peter Cook (with Limb as Dudley Moore). I see from their website that he was also voted ‘Festival Hunk no.5’ at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003. In spite of his comedic credentials, he is a sober, diffident presence on the concert platform (apart from a brief flash of humour prompted by a refractory door at the back of the  platform), and there is nothing remotely superficial or jokey about his extremely accomplished music-making, though I am sure he could produce a convincing imitation of Chico Marx if he put his mind to it.

Limb’s grandmother was Bax’s daughter, Maeve, and indeed, seated at the piano and viewed in profile, he bears a slight resemblance to the composer as a young man. He performed Bax’s Second Violin Sonata last year at the Frome Festival (of which the director, Martin Bax, is a cousin), and it was appropriate that Limb should begin his Conway Hall recital with three short pieces by his distinguished forebear. The miniature tone-poem Winter Waters, one of Bax’s darkest and stormiest piano works, came first, in a performance that brought out its brooding atmosphere to the full, and then we heard A Hill-Tune, whose delightful melody was originally written for the String Quintet in G, which Divertimenti recently recorded for Dutton; this was sensitively and expressively played. Finally, in complete contrast, came Whirligig, one of Bax’s most light-hearted piano pieces, dedicated to Irene Scharrer, which ends with what I believe is the only occurrence in his entire output of an upward glissando in thirds for the right hand (which can be quite painful to execute on an inferior keyboard). Limb entered fully into the spirit of the piece, producing a sparkling account of it and emerging at the end with all his fingers intact.

Next came Ronald Stevenson’s short but action-packed Peter Grimes Fantasy (1971), based on the opera which greatly impressed Bax when he first heard it and caused him to declare Britten ‘the only English composer who has ever shown a brilliant theatrical flair’. As Colin Scott-Sutherland points out in his note for the piece, Stevenson’s fantasy is no mere ‘pot pourri of tunes from the opera’ but ‘a closely knit formal structure which metamorphoses, in virtuosic pianistic terms, the characters of the protagonists’. Britten, in his maturity at least, wrote few works for the piano, and it was fascinating to hear some of the themes from his opera in this medium, divested of their familiar orchestral dress; I was reminded of that famous piece of film shot in 1945 showing Britten himself playing part of the score on the piano. Stevenson’s metamorphoses display a wide variety of moods within a fairly short time-span, and the range of pianistic textures is also varied, including, near the end, a few notes played by the pianist inside the lid of the instrument. The work made a deep impression and was warmly applauded.

Jeremy Limb then gave the world première of Stevenson’s Fugue, Variations and Epilogue on a Theme by Arnold Bax. This was completed towards the end of 2003, but there are sketches for the work going back two decades, to Bax’s centenary year. The theme is the principal melody from the slow movement of the Second Symphony (1924-5), and the score, which lasts about eighteen minutes in performance, is dedicated to Colin Scott-Sutherland and Malcolm Porteous (conductor of the Peebles Orchestra). The work begins with a fugue marked ‘without protocol’, a term originally used (as Stevenson points out) by Koechlin in his first Album de Lilian, op.139, and indicating that it eschews the textbook rules of fugal form. The first phrase of Bax’s theme appears at the outset deep in the bass, poco misterioso, and transcribed into the rarely-used Locrian mode (B to B on the white notes of the piano). The music gradually becomes more animated, discordant and disjointed, the effect of the mellifluous melody buffeted and mutilated in this way bringing to mind Ives’s wayward distortion of well-known tunes. The theme appears not only in its original guise but also in inverted, retrograde and canonic versions, and the fugue’s climax has the melody in both augmentation and diminution, ending with four bars marked ‘quasi fanfara’.

The Variations begin bitonally, the upper two staves with a key signature of five sharps, the lower two staves, which represent a ‘shadowy reflection’ of the upper, having five flats. Then comes a delicate Intermezzo-Notturna: omaggio a John Field, and this is succeeded by a short variation labelled Alla giga, which brought to mind the scherzo from the finale of Bax’s Sixth Symphony in the way it metamorphoses the original slow melody into an Irish-sounding dance. The Marcia funebre that follows presents the theme in the most Baxian version heard so far in the work. A capricious variation, marked Allegro (quasi feroce!), is followed by an Andante cantabile presentation of the theme in its inverted form. Then comes what Colin Scott-Sutherland calls a ‘romantic ruminative arpeggio’ version of the theme (he aptly likens it to Chopin’s ‘Aeolian Harp’ Étude), with Bax’s original harmonies being clearly heard for the first time. Finally the melody is given out more or less as it appears towards the end of Bax’s original movement. For anyone who knows the symphony, this richly inventive homage from one composer to another was a moving experience, enhanced by Jeremy Limb’s superb playing. I look forward to further performances and hope that a recording will be forthcoming.

The second half of the recital began with three of Debussy’s Études. These were followed by Busoni’s Sonatina No.6, which has the subtitle ‘Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen’ and is a typically virtuosic, and highly entertaining, medley of tunes from Bizet’s opera. The final piece on the printed programme was Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which was given with tremendous panache and received tumultuous applause. As an encore, Limb played one of his own compositions: a six-minute (or so) fugue based on the angular opening theme from Bax’s Fourth Piano Sonata (1932). The idea for this had been suggested by Ronald Stevenson, to whom the performance was dedicated, and it occurred to me that this may well be the first piece of music ever to be based on a theme by its composer’s great-grandfather; if there is a precedent, I can only surmise that it must involve some of the more obscure members of the Bach family. Bax’s forthright, widely-spaced theme is admirably suited to fugal treatment, though, as with Stevenson’s fugue, Limb declines to follow the form in a strict manner. At one point he treats the theme as a passacaglia, echoing Bax’s own use of it in this way in his sonata, and later in the piece the atmosphere becomes much warmer and the harmonies more lushly romantic. This proved to be a delightful encore, and I am sure that great-grandfather himself would have loved it.

I very much enjoyed Jeremy Limb’s recital, and it is a pleasure to report that Ronald Stevenson was present in the audience to hear the enthusiastic applause generated by his two fine compositions.

© Graham Parlett