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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Piano Works, Volume 2: Piano Sonatas: No. 3 in G sharp minor (1926) [33'56]; No. 4 in G (1932) [20'57]; Water Music (1920) [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)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 22-24 May 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557592 [73:16]

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Talented British pianist Ashley Wass caused quite a critical stir with the first volume of his Bax series for Naxos. The generously filled second volume does not disappoint. Superbly recorded in Potton Hall by Michael Ponder, the sound-stage is large yet immensely clear - due also to Wass's expert ear for texture.

The Third Sonata of 1926 comes between Bax's Second and Third Symphonies, from a time when Bax's creativity was at peak. Indeed there is an imaginative exuberance present that is most compelling. The work moves from vague amorphous grumblings through varied harmonic explorations to an almost Scriabinesque finale. Bax has a real ear for the feeling of arrival that can be conjured up by judiciously-prepared consonances. The slow movement of the three is spare and almost desolate; there remains hope here. Wass builds to a good climax at around the six-minute mark. He also keeps his tone true in the upper treble register. The sense of peace at the very end of the work is magnificently realised.

The Fourth Sonata dates from some six years later. Textures, perhaps under the influence of Neo-Classicism - as Lewis Foreman suggests in his notes - are cleaner and leaner. Indeed, right from the jaunty opening there is energy in abundance, an energy that seems positively sprite-like in nature. Wass realises that this energetic underpinning is the key to the movement, and ensures that the slower-moving passages never dawdle.

The slow movement of the Fourth Sonata (marked 'Very delicate throughout') is sometimes separately programmed, and with justification. Wass lightens his tone, appropriately, to an almost paper-like thinness, to give the finale its full weight. Taking a 'large' approach, this is big-boned stuff and all praise to the strength of Wass's fingers. More importantly, this pianist sculpts the work well.

The Baxian-reflective Water Music is as balm after the strains of the Fourth Sonata - it is actually a transcription from a ballet score. Winter Waters - which carries the subtitle, 'Tragic Landscape' - has a late-Lisztian darkness to it. This is evident in its obsessive passages and in the way that the music is drawn to the lower registers.

The final two works wind the listener down progressively. The innocently-named Country-Tune is indeed sweet but nevertheless carries undercurrents, while the wonderfully-titled O Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies is even sweeter and more care-free.

A worthy successor to Volume One.

Colin Clarke

Interview with Ashley Wass

Graham Parlett’s review of Vol. 1

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