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Bax: Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, Water Music, Winter Waters, A Country-Tune, O dame get up and bake your pies.  

Ashley Wass (piano). Naxos 8.557592.

 

Review by Graham Parlett

 

 

 

 


The first CD in Ashley Wass’s cycle of Bax’s complete piano music was issued in September 2004 and received very favourable reviews. The qualities displayed there — his rock-solid technique, his control of tone and expressive nuance, and his close attention to detail — are also to be found in this second issue, which I imagine will be as well received.

Bax completed his Third Sonata on 23 November 1926 , and in a letter to the pianist John Simons he remarked that ‘[it] gave me a lot of trouble . . . and as always when work does not come easily I always felt doubtful about it’. There have been four previous recordings, from Iris Loveridge and Frank Merrick (mono LPs), Eric Parkin (LP, cassette and CD), and Marie-Catherine Girod (CD). In preparing this review, I listened to all five recordings in succession and came to the conclusion that Loveridge’s and Wass’s were the best played. Reviewing the first volume in this series I noted that Wass tends to take broad tempi, and this is also the case in the first movement of No.3. Comparative timings are interesting here: Loveridge is the briskest at 10:11 , Parkin has 10:26 , Merrick 10:58, and Girod 10:59. Wass, in contrast, takes nearly four minutes longer than Loveridge in this movement, and yet I found on balance that I enjoyed their two completely different interpretations the most. Why this should be is difficult to say, but perhaps it is because neither performance is merely routine. In general I disapprove of slow tempos in Bax, and I was initially bothered by Wass’s slow speed in the opening Allegro moderato; but he makes up for this in the expressiveness of his playing and his ability to mould a phrase in such a way that you feel as if you are hearing it for the first time. Attention to detail is soon illustrated in the first line of the second page of the score, where the poco marcato instruction in the left hand is followed precisely. The Andante con moto passage starting around 4:21 (p.8 of the score) is again slower than in Loveridge’s recording, and maybe not really ‘con moto’, but again Wass brings a warmth and expressiveness that is very attractive, and Bax would undoubtedly have approved of Wass’s liberal use of the pedal, since he is known to have had a fondness for it himself. The Lento lontano at 7:53 (p.10) sounds to me more like an Adagio, but the concentrated stillness is such that I found myself hanging on every note, waiting for the next one. The final pages are well done, and the very last, clinching chord deep in the bass is attacked with real ferocity.

Wass’s performance of the dream-like second movement is, in my opinion, the best that has so far been issued (I have not heard the forthcoming one from Michael Endres), despite the curious misreading of a note (E for E flat) in the seventh bar and elsewhere. It is difficult to image the beautiful, chorale-like passage starting at 4:18 (p.20) being better played, though Loveridge is also very good here. Wass plays it quite simply, without any exaggerated expressiveness and then builds it up to a powerful climax. The quiet ending again has an extraordinary concentration, and I am glad that Wass refrains from spreading the widely-spaced minim (half-note) chords near the end (at 9:29 , third line of p.25); other pianists arpeggiate some of them ( Merrick ’s are especially clunky and wooden), and this spoils the rapt effect. Incidentally, Bax’s manuscript, which is in the British Library, reveals that this movement originally contained more material than in the published version. The passage before the chorale was longer, and the chorale itself originally had triplet semiquaver figurations high up in the right hand; the composer (thank heaven!) thought better of this idea and crossed them through.

 In the third movement it is Loveridge who strikes me as being the most successful in generating a sense of onward-going, toccata-like motion; she almost makes the music sound like Prokofiev in places. The other pianists all tend to make small, unmarked rallentandos and accellerandos, whereas she sweeps on without pause. Wass’s performance of this movement is certainly not as coldly efficient as Iris Loveridge’s. He puts more expression into it and there is sometimes a loss of momentum, though it starts well enough at a very fast tempo. Interesting to note that he plays an F natural in bar 6 of p.29, whereas in all the other recordings the pianist plays an F sharp, as in the surrounding bars. F sharp sounds right, but certainly no sharp sign is marked here either in the manuscript (in the British Library) or in the printed score; so, unless Bax was just being careless, Wass may well be correct in playing a natural. I do feel that the Moderato molto espressivo middle section is too slow (Parkin is surprisingly good here), but the transition to the tempo (and material) of the opening movement on the last page is excellent, and the desolate ending most effective. Viewing it as a whole, I have no doubt that this is the most interesting and characterful recording of the Third Sonata to have come my way since Iris Loveridge’s LP was issued in 1964. As I have mentioned, they are quite different readings but each pianist brings something to the music that is absent from the three other recordings.

The Fourth Sonata (1932) is the only one not dedicated to Harriet Cohen; it bears instead an inscription to the 26-year-old Irish pianist Charles Lynch, whom Bax described as ‘a very curious character’ with little sense of time and place. (Professor Aloys Fleischmann once told me that Lynch never shaved himself but took himself off to the barber every morning. On his death, in 1984, Lynch was buried behind Bax’s grave in St Finbarr’s Cemetery, Cork , near to the graves of Aloys Fleischmann, Snr., and his wife, Tilly.) The Fourth Sonata is one of Bax’s most succinct and straightforward large-scale works (the so-called ‘second subject’ of the first movement is even in the dominant), and the piano textures too are among the sparsest he ever wrote. My favourite performance of the work is that of John McCabe, who recorded it for broadcasting in November 1982, though unfortunately he never recorded it commercially (except for the slow movement on a long-deleted Decca LP).

From the very start of this new performance, it is clear that Ashley Wass has decidedly individual views on the piece, and I have certainly never heard the opening theme in the bass played so mischievously; for the first time I noticed a resemblance to the buffoonish tune of Grotesque from Bax’s Four Pieces for flute and piano. He relaxes a little where appropriate but maintains a good sense of momentum throughout the movement. The Allegretto quasi Andante is said to have been one of Bax’s favourites among his own works, and Wass plays it most expressively. The rondo-like third movement contains some of Bax’s most dissonant piano writing; there are certainly more intervals of the seventh than in any of his other pieces. Again, Ashley Wass is fully up to the music’s demands and he brings a wonderful joie de vivre to its closing pages.

            The four short pieces that complete the disc are well contrasted. Water Music is a straight transcription of the ‘Dance of Motherhood’ movement from Bax’s incidental music to the play The Truth about the Russian Dancers (1920). Loveridge, Hatto and Parkin all recorded it, but Wass’s performance is the best of the lot. The opening has a wonderful stillness, and Wass refrains from trying to inflate its modest pretensions. Winter Waters is one of the stormiest of Bax’s piano miniatures, and Wass clearly revels in its rugged contours and dramatic atmosphere, producing a performance that will be hard to beat. Next we have A Country-Tune, a fresh-air kind of piece, with what Peter J. Pirie thought was an allusion to Vaughan Williams. It is perhaps a little on the short side: I always feel that the fast middle section could have profited by an extra few bars, but I thoroughly enjoyed Wass performance. Finally, one of Bax’s last piano pieces: the trifling set of miniature variations on a North Country Christmas carol, O dame get up and bake your pies, which is dispatched here with gusto.

            The recorded sound on this CD is very good indeed, and there are the usual informative notes from Lewis Foreman. I can strongly recommend this latest issue, with its individual and thought-provoking performances, and look forward to the next volume in the series, which will contain more of Bax’s shorter works for piano.  


Review by Christopher Webber  

For many, Bax's 3rd Piano Sonata is firm favourite of his four. It would also seem the toughest nut to crack. Unlike the first two it uses the three-movement form Bax took for his symphonies, and like them it covers an impressive range. Blending its storm-tossed vigour and rapt dream-poetry has proved a challenge for interpreters on disc. Frank Merrick's bumpy traversal has plenty of energy but little subtlety. The headstrong Marie-Catherine Girod goes for poetry at the expense of structural cogency, whilst Eric Parkin sounds so stretched by the technical challenges that he conveys little of either. The least unsatisfying version has long been Iris Loveridge's Lyrita LP (nla). Her undemonstrative reading, captured in murky mono, has thus far come closest to conveying the full potential of this demanding piece.  

Alas, the 3rd Sonata proves a Becher's Brook for Ashley Wass just as surely as it did for most of his predecessors. Given his impressive technique and musicality this ought to have been a winner. Certainly we get to hear felicitous detail aplenty, and the Naxos recording quality is in a league of its own. Yet there's a disconcerting lack of vigour, a concern for textural clarity at the expense of the sweeping, passionate drama of the whole. Implausibly relaxed tempi are partly to blame; Bax's minatory opening is marked allegro moderato, but Wass sluggishly approximates the moderato whilst ignoring the allegro. Yet laid-back speeds are only the half of it, for the slow movement remains as resolutely earthbound. The last movement begins with a welcome urgency, but momentum soon evaporates; nor is there any sense of homecoming in the over-decorous return of that first movement allegro moderato for the coda.  

The final impression is of a diligent read-through. Bafflingly so, given the pianist's earlier success with the first two sonatas. Perhaps his consistent misreading of an E flat as E natural in the flowing cantabile melody of the slow movement gives the clue to a deeper problem. In souring the sweetness Wass provides a typically Epicurean touch, undercutting Bax's bold simplicity and complicating his precise sound world. Something of the same thing can be felt later on, when the lovely "Irish chorale" at the heart of the movement is played more for clinical detachment than human warmth. Altogether there's too little engagement and too much cautious calculation. The result is an inert, soft-focus display that avoids Bax's rocks and shoals at the expense of the voyage itself.

The remainder is close to the level of the pianist's excellent first Bax CD. Although Water Music suffers some of the same lack of tension, Wass' turbid Winter Waters swirl and eddy most graphically, and the two minor pieces are crisply dispatched. The classically restrained 4th Sonata is lighter and less complex than its predecessor, and Wass succeeds well in putting across its burly humour as well as the distilled warmth of the central idyll, with its insistently chiming G sharp. Nor here is there any hanging around, least of all in the well-sustained, genuine allegro of the closing toccata. Though Wass at last lets rip to brilliant effect at the climactic allegro maestoso, again his performance is more laid-back than the benchmark Loveridge; though this time it works very well indeed. I expected a lot from this CD, and the clean-winded 4th does much to redeem it. The recording is bass-heavy but clear throughout, Lewis Foreman's notes are impeccable, Wass' technical control likewise. All the more frustrating that his 3rd Sonata is, at least to my ears, such a disappointment.