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Late Flowering of the Romantic Piano Sonata (JFL1)

Arnold Bax – Phantasy Sonata for Viola and Harp
Raymond Jeremy, viola; Maria Korchinska, harp
[TT=20'37"]

Recorded late summer 1928 (NGS 118-120)
Transfers and XR remastering by Andrew Rose, March 2008


PRISTINE CLASSICAL download only release in association with Gramophone. Download ID: 406499 (MP3) /406500 (FLAC)

Downloads, PDF covers and cue-sheets available from PRISTINE CLASSICAL

review by CHRISTOPHER WEBBER

This is an astonishing resurrection. In 1923 the celebrated novelist Compton Mackenzie founded two remarkable institutions. Though shorn of its definite article The Gramophone is still with us. The National Gramophonic Society proved less sturdy; though before it folded in 1931 no less than 165 12-inch 78 rpm shellac records, mainly of modern chamber music, had been issued to subscribers under the famous Yellow Label imprint. Technical standards for recording chamber music at the time were not far advanced, and the pressings themselves were often poor. All very frustrating, where so many of the NGS issues captured rare British and continental repertoire, very often played by first performers and dedicatees.

Now Andrew Rose has gained access to Gramophone’s own archive vault. He has subjected the best available copies from all sources to the magic of his XR-Mastering, and Pristine Classical will be releasing the results, most for the first time in three-quarters of a century. Initially these may be purchased online as downloads only, very reasonably priced, in a choice of high-quality MP3 or lossless FLAC format. Cover graphics of the original labels and short notes are also freely available. Of Andrew Rose’s many labours of love, this project has to be about the most remarkable.

Bax’s reputation soared during the eight years of the Society’s existence, so little wonder that several of his chamber works were captured hot from the press. These include the Oboe Quintet, First String Quartet, plus Moy Mell, Hardanger and the Sonata for two pianos; and here we have the Fantasy Sonata for Viola and Harp (Pristine follow NGS in opting for “Phantasy”, unsupported by MS or published sources) played by the original artists. Korchinska was one of the composer’s many muses, and the work is the most substantial of those he dedicated to the great Russian harpist.

Her radiant playing still dazzles with its brilliance, in a work which for emotional range and beauty of invention ranks very high in Bax’s chamber music output. Raymond Jeremy was a lesser figure, without the security of his great contemporary Lionel Tertis, but still a musical artist. The upside of his comparative lack of power is that instrumental balance is well sustained, and the reading – significantly faster than we might expect today – is refreshingly energised and unsentimental. They premiered the sonata in June 1927, and the NGS recording (apparently a second attempt) dates from the following summer.

Korchinska later re-recorded the Sonata for Decca with Watson Forbes, but her NGS version has unique historical interest. Beyond that, the remarkable job that Rose has done in coaxing the instruments forward through the hiss-and-crackle-ridden original surfaces without over-processing makes this issue compelling listening. Listening through headphones on computer, the lossless FLAC download just wins out over MP3 in body and clarity, but CD burning reduces the difference. In either flavour, the restoration reveals hitherto unsuspected presence and dynamic range, very far from the lacklustre, dim fog we might have expected. It opens a window on the past which many had thought closed for ever, and further issues from Pristine’s NGS treasure trove are most eagerly awaited.

© Christopher Webber 2008