Bax’s natural instrument was the orchestra and he wrote
fluently for it – symphonies, tone poems, concertos - creating
some of the most colourful works of the first forty years of
the 20th century.
was really through recordings of some of the orchestral music
– Vernon Handley’s Concert Artist issues of the 4th
Symphony, The Tale the Pine Trees Knew and Symphonic
Variations (with Joyce Hatto) and Norman Del Mar’s superb
account of the 6th Symphony for Lyrita – that
Bax captured the contemporary musical public in the 1960s. To
be sure, Lyrita had recorded the complete piano music, and the
complete cello and piano works, in mono in the 1950s but it
was the opulence of the orchestral works which really rekindled
– or should I say kindled? - interest in Bax’s music.
first encounter with Bax’s music, in the flesh, was in St George’s
Hall, Bradford – scene of so many of my earliest musical experiences
– when Barbirolli conducted the Hallé
Orchestra and his wife, Evelyn Rothwell, in what was, if I remember
correctly, only the second performance of Barbirolli’s own transcription
for oboe and string orchestra of the Oboe Quintet. This
was subsequently given at the Proms and a 1968 BBC studio performance
was issued on a compilation of British music conducted by Barbirolli
(BBC Legends BBCL4100-2). I was bowled over and subsequently
grabbed any, and all, Bax recordings I could get my hands on.
discovered most of the music on this disk on a 1973 Cabaletta
LP, played by Frank Merrick and Michael Round (HRS 2004) which
was the first LP, and stereo, recording of any of these pieces.
Most of Bax’s works for two pianos were written for the husband
and wife duo of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson and they made
the very first recordings of the Sonata and Hardanger
(National Gramophonic Society NGS 156/158) and Moy Mell
(NGS 102) - surely these recordings are prime candidates for
re-issue. Next came Jeremy Brown and Seta Tanyel’s recording
for Chandos (CHAN 8603) in the 1980s and now this new disk.
the size of the repertoire for two pianos it amazes me that
these works aren’t played more often. But there are problems.
The Sonata is a big, meaty work, which contains a lot
of Bax’s characteristic orchestral sounds – this may sound silly
but just listen to the opening of the finale: it’s straight
out of the orchestral scores, especially the first two Symphonies.
Until I heard this performance I was convinced that this was
why the Sonata was neglected. Now I am not so sure. Such
big textures can make balance a real problem, but Wass and Roscoe,
helped by a crystal clear recording, make even the thickest
of the Sonata’s sonorities sound quite natural, sometimes
approaching transparency. There are still moments where I expect
an orchestra to come crashing in, but in general I have been
convinced of the validity of this music as purely piano music.
The Celtic sound world of the slow movement is especially well
Sonata is the biggest work here and, quite rightly, takes center-stage.
What surrounds it is a mixture of the fun and the serious.
his fine notes Lewis Foreman says that this version of the Festival
Overture - it also exists on a version for orchestra - reminds
him of Percy Grainger at his most extrovert and, as well as
this, there’s more than a touch of music hall to it. Surprisingly,
the sudden intervention of a fugue only serves to heighten the
spirits. It’s a fun piece, but will come as a shock to anyone
who only knows the serious side to Bax. It serves as a wonderful
overture to what follows. Hardanger is a splendidly joyous
companion piece to the Overture, a happy romp which brings
the recital to a satisfying close whilst Moy Mell, subtitled
An Irish Tone-Poem, take us back to the composer’s beloved
Ireland. It achieves much in its short time span, and is quite
translucent in its language.
other three works are intensely serious, darkly hewn pieces,
passionate and withdrawn; The Poisoned Fountain, for
instance, is a strange kind of, muted, scherzo, a seascape (Bax
loved his seascapes) with a darkness at its centre.
is not a disk made for easy listening. The music is difficult,
with the exception of the first and last works, which are the
exception to the rule, and needs time for contemplation and reflection.
I’ve known this music for the better part of thirty five years
and still haven’t fully come to terms with it. But it does repay
study and performances of this stature will do a lot to help disseminate
the work to a wider audience. Take your time and there’s much
to admire here.
see also Review
by Dan Morgan