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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Piano Sonata No.3 in G sharp minor (1926) [33’56]
Piano Sonata No.4 in G major (1934) [20’57]
Water Music [6’28]
Winter Waters (1915) [6’46]
Country Tune (1920) [2’19]
O Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies (1945) [2’49]
Ashley Wass (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 22-24 May 2004
NAXOS 8.557592 [73’16]


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I have to confess to only really being acquainted with Bax’s music through his colourful orchestral works and symphonies, plus a smattering of chamber works, such as the excellent Nonet. Of course, I have been aware of the ongoing series of piano discs from Naxos, and have been very pleased to have finally been able to sample this area of his output.

Lewis Foreman’s exceptionally informative note tells us that the piano was, in fact, Bax’s main instrument from a very early age and formed the backbone of his studies at the Royal Academy of Music. He also tells us that Bax constantly kept up with trends in European music, and this is evident from listening to the two sonatas. The Sonata No.3 is a big, lush work lasting well over half an hour. It is interesting that Foreman’s note mentions Scriabin and Debussy twice, and it seems clear to me that the harmonic and chromatic ‘wanderings’ of the long first movement have these composers as their source. It does have a boldness about it, but I found the structure rather diffuse and meandering, which negated some of the cleverness in the writing. At over 15 minutes, this movement alone lasts longer than many whole Scriabin sonatas, and it is a pity the composer wasn’t persuaded to tighten things up a little. That said, there is no denying that Wass’s playing helps to keep a certain rein on things and he tries in his playing to keep a positive forward momentum. I liked the slow movement’s dreamy lyricism, so typical of the composer, and even though the finale returns to the mood of the opening movement, it is considerably shorter and makes a bigger impression.

It appears the almost universal trend towards neo-classicism reached Bax slightly late, but it is definitely in evidence in the Sonata No.4, his last outing in the form. Though a truly individual voice is still hard to detect, I like the thinner, leaner textures and tauter nature of the structure. Hindemith seems to be lurking here, but Bax’s material has great charm and there is, certainly in this performance, a feeling of heading somewhere rather than lingering. The brilliant, toccata-like finale is particularly impressive and Foreman points out that the treatment of the main theme as a triumphal march later in the movement has some parallels with music from the Fourth Symphony, premiered about the same time.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the shorter pieces, in some ways, work better than the longer sonatas. Bax was a brilliant miniaturist, as his short orchestral and chamber works show. The four pieces featured here are all delightful, but if I had to pick one I would say that the haunting and broodingly powerful Winter Waters is a favourite. Foreman tells us it has a subtitle, Tragic Landscape, and he surmises that for its inspiration Bax may have had the stories of the Western Front in mind, which wouldn’t surprise me.

Dedicated followers of Bax may have other favourite recordings of this repertoire to compare with, but for my ears, with its naturally balanced, warm recording, Wass’s intelligent, agile playing does the composer’s cause no harm at all.

Tony Haywood

see also Review by Colin Clarke




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