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Elgar: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Bax: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and
Piano. Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano). Global Music
Network CD: GMNC 0113.


Last Modified July 25, 2000


Review by Graham Parlett

It is encouraging to see the proliferation in recordings of Bax’s
chamber music over the last few years. There are now splendid CDs of
most of the larger pieces on Chandos and Hyperion, and Naxos have
started their own series, with a recording of harp works released in
July and the string quartets from the Maggini Quartet in the pipeline.
It is especially good to find that performers are now turning their
attention to the violin sonatas, which have been particularly neglected:
this new recording from GMN of No. 2 is only the third recording of the
work ever to have been released. The earliest, played by Henry Holst and
Frank Merrick, came out in 1966 on a limited edition mono LP from the
Frank Merrick Society and has never been reissued. Another twenty-four
years elapsed before Chandos issued the first CD version with Erich
Gruenberg and John McCabe. Both these performances, however, must now
yield to this splendid new release.

The Second Sonata was completed originally in 1915 but never
performed, and eight years later Bax published it in a revised version.
Most of Bax’s extended works are in three movements, but this sonata is
in four connected movements. The idea of linking movements is paralleled
in a few other works, such as the Phantasy for viola and orchestra, the
Fantasy Sonata, and the Symphonic Phantasy (later renamed Sinfonietta).
It is clear that the word ‘Fantasy’ (the title of the Second Sonata’s
first movement) was associated in Bax's mind with the use of cyclic
structures and motto themes, and he used the device as a means of
lending unity to works in which the sonata-form principles which he
generally favoured are more loosely applied than usual.

As Tasmin Little points out in her informative and enthusiastic notes,
the motto theme that occurs throughout this work is also to be found in
Bax’s tone-poem November Woods. After the grim opening page (‘Slow and
gloomy’), in which much of the thematic material is adumbrated, the
performers launch confidently into the main Allegro (‘rough and
fierce’), which is taken at just the right speed, with plenty of forward
momentum but not too rushed. A calmer rising figure first heard on the
piano (‘singing boldly’ is Bax’s helpful marking), provides contrast
before a brief recapitulation dies away and leads into the second
movement, entitled ‘The Grey Dancer in the Twilight’. This is a fast
waltz full of fantastic and imaginative touches. Bax suggested in his
original programme note that it might have been called ‘The Dance of
Death’, and there are several allusions to the Dies Irae. Again, the
performers play with consummate skill and make the most of the contrast
between the carefree associations of the waltz form in which the
movement is set and the actual musical content, with its clear allusions
to the appalling tragedy of the Great War.

The slow third movement, with its occasional echoes of Debussy, is the
emotional heart of the work, and here the performers play with great
delicacy and, where appropriate, passion, again making the most of the
extreme contrasts in mood that are indicated throughout by Bax’s
frequent markings (‘very still and subdued’, ‘wistful and languid’,
‘singing clearly’, etc.).  fourth movement is an Allegro feroce, with
many changes in time signature including the rare 11/8 – the only work I
can think of in which Bax uses it. The ferocity culminates in a passage
very high up on the violin marked ‘desperately’, and the work ends with
a tranquil epilogue in which the main thematic material is heard again
but now with all passion spent.

Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe have performed this work many times in
concert, and this shows in the confidence of their playing and their
assimilation of Bax’s musical style. (Mr Roscoe has also played Bax’s
music as a soloist, having given the first performances of In the Night
and the original piano version of Nympholept.) This is a work that shows
Bax in expansive and wayward mood, and in lesser hands it can sound
indulgent, but here the performers are highly successful in holding the
work together, and the listener’s attention is maintained throughout.

The Elgar Sonata, of course, is much better known and has received far
more recordings over the years, from Albert Sammons to Nigel Kennedy.
But having made comparison with some of the other recommended
performances in the catalogue, I can certainly confirm that this new one
stands among the very finest and can be warmly recommended to all

The quality of Mike Hatch’s recording, made in the Old Market, Hove, is
superb: a really warm and natural sound, and it would be difficult to
imagine a better balance between the two instruments. I certainly hope
that these fine artists (and GMN) will now turn their attention to Bax’s
other sonatas. Meanwhile, I am sure that this CD will receive the
success it deserves.

© Graham Parlett  2000