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Bax: Harp Quintet; Elegiac Trio; Fantasy Sonata; Sonata for Flute and Harp.  Mobius. Naxos CD: 8.554507.

THE SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE

Last Modified July 24, 2000

 



Review by Graham Parlett

Mobius is the name of a chamber group formed in 1995 and comprising
seven young musicians from four different countries. (It is also,
incidentally, the name of a Rock group from Oregon, but since Bax’s
music is not, as far as I know, in their repertoire there is little
chance of the two being confused.) This new recording of chamber music
with harp is their first for Naxos though they have already recorded
works by Mozart, Weber, Debussy and Ravel for EMI. They performed the
Bax pieces at a concert in the Purcell Room early in 1999, and later at
a recital at the RAM, so they are obviously well attuned to his
individual sound world. In an interview published in Hi-Fi News (June
1999) the harpist, Alison Nicholls, who heroically bears the brunt of
Bax’s demands on this new disc, spoke of the challenges that faced them,
and their enthusiasm for the music clearly shines through their
performances.

 The first work in the recital is the one-movement Harp Quintet,
written in 1919, shortly after Tintagel had been orchestrated, and first
performed with the harpist Gwendolen Mason. It has been recorded three
times before, and there are currently two performances in the catalogue,
though the better of them, on the American RCM label, is not generally
available outside the USA. The other is the English String Quartet
version with Skaila Kanga on Chandos, but on the whole I prefer this new
version to that one. I wish that Bax had put Allegro moderato instead of
Moderato at the beginning: I feel that the music should move on here,
and there is always the uncomfortable feeling that performers are
holding back. Nevertheless, a sense of forward momentum is soon
achieved, and the music is vigorously played. The contrasting section
starting on p. 6 of the score, with that simple sequence of harp chords
accompanying one of Bax’s most ingratiating melodies on the cello, is
beautifully played here, and indeed these young performers play most
expressively throughout.

The intimate little Elegiac Trio of 1916 has become just about the most
recorded of all Bax’s works: it currently holds joint first place with
the Clarinet Sonata with no fewer than thirteen recordings, though
several of them are deleted or difficult to come by: I have never heard,
for example, the Debussy-Trio München version. Of the ones I know my
favourite is the Nash Ensemble’s on Hyperion, but this newcomer is
certainly among the best with playing of great delicacy and
sensitivity.

Turning to the Fantasy Sonata for viola and harp, there are fewer rivals
currently on disc, but it has been recorded by a number of very
distinguished harpists, including Maria Korchinska, and violists, such
as Watson Forbes and Rikva Golani. I have been listening to three other
versions of the piece and can report that this new performance can hold
its own with the best of them. There are so many changes of tempo and
mood in this work that it must be difficult for performers to find a
continuous thread, but Ashan Pillai and Alison Nicholls have succeeded
very well. Their tempi are expertly judged, and I especially enjoyed the
fourth movement, with its lively Irish dance rhythms. (To digress for a
moment with a brief anecdote: I visited Maria Korchinska several times
towards the end of her life at her home in St. John’s Wood, where she
used to ply me with whisky and salami (both neat), and she once told me
that, switching on the wireless one day in the 1940s, she was surprised
to hear the opening of this movement being played at breakneck speed,
and even more amazed to discover at the end of the broadcast that it was
actually one of her own recordings, which she had never listened to
before.) One small textual query in the new Naxos version: I wonder why
the double stopping at the top of p. 33 has been reduced to a single
line. No matter; a trivial detail. I hope Ashan Pillai will now turn his
attention to Bax’s Sonata for viola and piano, which has been sadly
neglected on CD, though I believe that Martin Outram of the Maggini
Quartet may eventually be recording this for Naxos.

Finally, who would have thought a few years ago that there would now be
four recordings of the Sonata for flute and harp available on CD, with a
fifth shortly due for release on the Guild label? Written in 1928, and
first performed by Maria Korchinska and her husband, Count Benckendorff
(the dedicatee), the work received only a few performances during Bax’s
lifetime, and in 1936 he arranged it as a Concerto for seven instruments
(available on Chandos). Apart from a performance by Mme. Korchinska and
John Francis some time in the 1950s, and by another duo in the 1980s,
the work was largely unknown until the Beynon sisters made the first
recording of it in 1994 (still available on the Métier label). One of
the reasons for its neglect was that it remained unpublished until 1987,
when the Lyra Music Company of New York issued a score and part
throughout which the typesetter chose to scatter wrong notes and
accidentals with Bacchic abandon. Fortunately, apart from the French
version on the Arion label, all the performers who have recorded it have
been able to consult a photocopy of the original manuscript and to
correct the printed score. It is very difficult to make a first choice
among the recordings now available: they are all very good; suffice it
to say that Lorna McGhee and Alison Nicholls on Naxos play the work
splendidly.

The sound engineer, Andrew Lang, has made a good job of taming the
generous ecclesiastical acoustics of the north London church in which
the music was recorded, and all in all I can warmly recommend this new
disc as a welcome addition to Naxos’ ongoing Bax series, which has got
off to such an excellent start with David Lloyd-Jones’s performances of
symphonies and tone-poems. I look forward to more recordings from
Mobius.

© Graham Parlett  2000