Viola Sonata in C minor (1905)
Phantasy for Viola and Piano Op 54 (1918)
Doris Lederer (viola)
Jane Coop (piano)
CENTAUR CRC 2660 [68.22]
Richard R. Adams
Viola Sonata has one of the most colorful recording histories of all
his works. For one
thing, itís the only piece by Bax that the composer himself
recorded - with violist Lionel Tertis.
It is also one of the few works by Bax in which we can hear
how his muse, Harriet Cohen - in performance with William Primrose -
interpreted and coped with the challenges of Baxís fiendishly
difficult piano writing. The
Viola Sonata has been recorded more times then any of Baxís other
string sonatas although surprisingly there have been few modern
recordings of the work and those that are available are on obscure
or difficult-to-get-hold-of labels.
This new recording on Centaur is no exception.
It took a little searching to locate a copy but am I ever
glad I found it! It
contains what is one of the best performances the work has received
on disc and therefore fills a very important gap in Baxís
discography. In addition
it provides recordings of two impressive works by Baxís exact
contemporary, York Bowen.
distinguishes this recording for me is the full-bodied piano playing
of Jane Coop. Aside from
being technically assured, she plays with tremendous vitality and
produces a rich sound that blends beautifully with the warm,
vibrato-lean tone of Doris Ledererís viola.
Ms. Coop also understands that in this sonata, the piano is
an equal partner as there are many passages where the piano
dominates the interplay between the instruments.
A problem with so many recordings of this sonata is that the
pianist is either not up to the technical challenges of the work or
plays (or is recorded) in a very recessed manner.
The great failing of the composerís own recording is that
the piano is so recessed that it sounds as if Bax is in a different
room playing something unrelated to what Tertis is doing.
Itís a shame that the balance is so skewed because both Bax
and Tertis play with a ferocity and virtuosity that is breathtaking.
such a strong partner in Jane Coop, Ms. Lederer is inspired to play
very forcefully and the result is the most intense, no-nonsense
performance this Sonata has received in many years.
The Tertis recording with Bax is exciting but their breakneck
speed minimizes the tender poignancy of the first movement and
brooding melancholy of the last.
Lederer and Coop are just as virtuosic but their performance
has more depth and more fully explores the shifting moods of this
astonishing work. The
hobgoblin second movement is also brilliantly characterized and it
is here where Ms. Coopís playing stands out so effectively.
this recording renewed my enthusiasm for the Viola Sonata, a work
that has a reputation for being one of Baxís greatest chamber
works but one that has few champions today.
The only other readily available recording is on German Koch
with Ivo-Jan van der Werff (viola) and Simon Marlow (piano).
While both artists play beautifully and are, if anything,
even better recorded then Lederer, their performance rarely catches
fire. Mr. van der
Werffís playing in particular sounds too reserved and this is the
only recording I know of where the pianist dominates.
I was very surprised hearing Harriet Cohenís recording with
William Primrose again. Primrose
plays effortlessly but also a little too mechanically.
Cohenís playing does not sound secure (perhaps she was
having an off day?) and I was bothered by her many sudden shifts in
tempo that break the musical line.
Iíve heard better examples of her playing.
The recording by Herbert Downes (viola) and Leonard Cassini
(piano) has a good reputation and certainly the playing by Downes is
very fine but here again, the pianist is the wink link - his playing
sounding rather insecure at times.
That said, thereís a lot more character and feeling in
their performance than can be found in the Cohen/Primrose run
favorite recording of the sonata has been the Musical Heritage
Society recording from the mid 1970s with Emanuel Vardi (viola) and
Abba Bogin (piano). This
performance is similar to the new Centaur disc and I wonder if the
younger players werenít inspired by it.
The playing by both Vardi and Bogin is brilliant, upfront,
very exciting but also extremely sympathetic to the darker moods of
the music. If anything,
this performance has even more character then the new one but it
isnít nearly so well recorded and is sadly unavailable.
The new Centaur disc is a worthy successor, at any rate.
Bowen Sonata in C minor and Phantasy for Viola and Piano are very
attractive works and I believe Baxians will respond to the music
even if the Bowen sonata sounds nothing like Bax.
Both works can be heard on a Dutton Disc that contains the
Second Viola Sonata but I have not heard that disc.
The Bowen sonata is a huge Brahmsian edifice that at times
reminded me of Dvorak, Ravel and Elgar.
OK, Iím not so sure Bowen had the most distinctive voice
but this sonata certainly shows he was a master craftsman who was
capable of writing very engaging and powerfully argued music.
The first movement of the sonata in particular is a
powerfully structured work and the players go at it full force.
The Phantasy sounds more obviously English although for me it
was also the less interesting of the two works.
Nevertheless, it is very engaging and both pieces should
attract many more people to Bowenís cause.
Iím certainly eager to hear more of this composer.
summary, an outstanding disc with the finest modern performance of a
great Bax masterpiece and a fine introduction to the music of one of
Baxís contemporaries who deserves to be better know.
I hope Centaur intends to record Baxís Piano Quintet.
If so, they should invite Lederer and Coop to participate, as
they are outstanding musicians who clearly understand how to put Bax
across. Incidentally, I
found my copy of this disc on Amazon.com
but I also see that Centaur has a website at: http://www.centaurrecords.com/.
The disc can be ordered directly from this site.
Richard R. Adams 2004