THE SIR ARNOLD BAX
Bax: The Piano Music
Iris Loveridge, Piano
REAM.3113 (3 CDs)
Recorded between 1959 and 1963 in The Music Room, Burnham, Buckinghamshire, UK
Review by Richard R. Adams
What is remarkable about these pioneering recordings is that despite
the primitive sound, these recordings of Bax’s piano music have
never been surpassed as a set and remain the best example for how
this music, particularly the sonatas, should be played.
The earliest of these recordings are now 50
years old and sounding every day of it but when Richard Itter began
producing his own recordings in 1959, he was using high quality
amateur mono equipment set up in his own home where the artists were
invited to come and make their records.
He started out modestly by making piano
and chamber LPs and then in the mid 1960s, he expanded his
operations when he made a contract with Decca to engineer his discs
in state-of-the-art sound and the focus of his label then became
orchestral British music.
But when these recordings were made, the
operations were more intimate but even at this early stage in
Lyrita’s history, it’s clear Mr. Itter was determined to involve the
very finest artists possible and that’s why these early mono
recordings have been cherished for so many years.
glad to report that the remasterings by Simon Gibson are excellent
and I suspect after a couple of minutes of playing, most listeners
will adjust to the hollow piano sound and become enthralled by
interpretations themselves, which are so fresh and dynamic.
Iris Loveridge is one of the great unsung
heroes of British music.
It’s really a shame that she didn’t
continue making records for Lyrita as she obviously had an
understanding of and sympathy for the British piano repertoire that
few other pianists have since been able to match. Certainly none of
the pianists who have recorded Bax’s music have combined her steely
resolve and directness with her ability to project the music’s more
elusive and quieter moods.
A surprising number of pianists have
recorded the sonatas but few very successfully.
Eric Parkin’s playing for Chandos is
much too staid and generalized whereas Ashley Wass on
takes liberties with tempos that the music frequently can’t sustain.
Mr. Wass has since developed into a
first-rate Bax pianist but I get the sense he was still feeling his
way around the music when he recorded the sonatas.
Binns in his new set for the British Music Society has many fine
moments and is obviously sensitive to Bax’s instructions but his
playing lacks the virtuosity that this music demands. That is
certainly true of Frank Merrick in his set from the early 1960s,
which must be considered authoritative as he knew Bax well but was
well past his prime as a player when in his 80s he recorded the
Girod’s interpretations are wildly mannered and don’t hold up on
repeated listening. The only pianist who seems to have learned
anything from the Loveridge set while at the same time remaining
completely individual is the great German pianist Michael Endres,
whose set of sonatas on Oehms remains the definitive modern edition.
His technique no doubt exceeds what Iris Loveridge was capable of
but unfortunately, Endres has only recorded the sonatas, so in terms
of the smaller works, Loveridge still reigns supreme and her set
must be considered mandatory as a result.
Loveridge’s recordings of Bax’s four numbered
piano sonatas were originally published one per LP with small piano
pieces taking up the other side of the disc.
Loveridge recorded a fifth disc of just
smaller pieces but it was never released on LP so this CD set is
actually a debut and includes the only recording yet made of the
Concert Valse in E flat. It’s amazing we’ve had
to wait nearly 50 years for its release.
For this set, Lyrita has arranged the music
over three discs in chronological order and so we start with the
First Sonata in its revised edition. Loveridge remains my preferred
version of this sonata even taking into account Michael Endres’s
barn-storming account. Of all the Bax sonatas, this work needs to be
played with tremendous strength and concentration so that the
tension never lags and Endres does this brilliantly.
Loveridge can’t equal his strength but
she is as focused and she allows more for moments of relaxation
permitting the music to breath and she certainly indulges in more
rubato in the slower sections. Loveridge can’t match Michael’s
virtuosity in the glorious bell-ringing coda but she plays it very
well and succeeds in making all the chords sound as clear and
accurate as possible.
In my opinion, the First Sonata still
awaits a truly great recording but I still go back to the Loveridge
when I want to hear what is for me the most musically satisfying
performance of this great work.
My introduction to the Second Sonata was
through the Loveridge LP and I remain very partial to it.
Her playing here is especially secure
and I suspect that’s because she played this sonata more frequently
than the others. What I love about the Loveridge performance is that
it all seems so perfectly balanced. Nothing about her playing is
exaggerated nor does she cheat the drama of what is after all a very
conflicted piece of music.
recording is beautifully played and his is certainly the most epic
performance. I’m actually very fond of it and wouldn’t be without it
but I know others find his recording of the Second too measured.
Endres keeps everything moving and is a
model of objectivity but his performance fails to involve me in the
drama as much as I’d like. Loveridge gets it all right and is
undoubtedly the safest choice for those who find Wass too intense or
Endres too straight.
The Third Sonata is the most elusive of the
four but at the same time it seems to be the favorite of most of the
Bax pianists I’ve spoken with including Wass and Endres.
I don’t know what Loveridge’s attitude
was toward it but judging from the recording, she understood it very
well and gives a very captivating performances of this very
Here I have to say Michael Endres is
unsurpassed as an interpretation and the modern recording really
helps with music that relies so much on shading and mood but
Loveridge runs him a close second and the performances are actually
The same comparison can be made regarding the
Fourth Sonata, which both Endres and Loveridge play with tremendous
energy. Endres again is to be preferred because he also plays with
greater delicacy in the beautiful middle movement.
Here, the Loveridge performance is
robbed of its mystery because of the very dry recorded acoustic but
she’s thrilling in the outer movements both of which she takes at
faster speeds. All other recorded performances of this sonata
disappoint me due to sluggish tempos in the outer movements.
Endres gives us the definitive recording of the
Bax Symphony-Sonata as the filler for his sonatas set whereas
Loveridge gives us a near-complete edition of Bax’s smaller piano
Loveridge did not record the
Symphony-Sonata but she is the only pianist to have recorded the
Valse in E Flat, a relatively minor work that has never attracted
others pianist to play it.
Needless to say, Loveridge plays it very
Here I have to admit a slight reservation about
Loveridge’s playing in this set.
The same directness and refusal to
linger that works so well in the sonatas doesn’t always serve the
more picturesque and gentle piano pieces, which in her hands come
off as just a little to matter of fact. Some real gems like
“Lullaby”, “May Night in the
“Nereid” and “Sleepy Head” need a softer touch than Loveridge allows
but again the dry acoustic works against her.
On the other hand, her performances of
the more muscular piano pieces like “Paean”, “Gopak”, “In a Vodka
Shop”, “Whirligig”, “Ceremonial Dance” and “Toccata” have never been
Praise must also be given for Loveridge’s
performances of the larger piano pieces such as “Dream in Exile” and
“What the Minstrel Told Us”.
These are mini tone poems with both slow
and fast sections and Loveridge sees to it that the contrasts in
tempo and dynamics are fully observed.
Eric Parkin is also very good in these
pieces although again I prefer the slightly starker and less
sentimental approach of Loveridge.
The return of these classic recordings is real
cause for celebration as I suspected they’d never see the light of
day again. Lyrita is to be praised for their magnificent
presentation including re-printing all of Peter J. Pirie’s original
liner notes with additional comments by Lewis Foreman.
Pirie was one of the most thoughtful and
controversial musicologists of his day who promoted Bax when to do
so was extremely unfashionable.
His commentary on Bax’s piano music
remains, along with the writings of the late Christopher Palmer, the
most insightful we’ve yet had on the subject.
In closing, this set is a mandatory purchase for anyone remotely
interested in Bax’s piano music and I hope future pianists who are
adventurous enough to attempt this repertoire will at first give
Loveridge a listen to hear how one extremely gifted pianist was able
to survey this amazing and difficult music with such convincing