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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1910) [22:28]
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1919) [27:57]
Dream in Exile - Intermezzo (1916) [11:50]
Burlesque (1920) [3:02]
Nereid (1919) [4:45]
In a Vodka Shop (1915) [3:59]
Ashley Wass (piano)
Potton Hall, Suffolk, 9-11 Oct 2003
NAXOS 8.557439 [74:27]


Naxos launch a new Bax series with this stylishly sensitive pianist revealingly interviewed by Colin Clarke. The disc complements their Lloyd-Jones series of Bax symphonies.

Wass favours an expansive approach to Bax's piano music. This works outstandingly well in Dream in Exile which receives a masterly performance, Medtnerian in its elusive mood it ranges enigmatically between nostalgia, threat and melancholy. This could easily have been one of Medtner's Ballades. Glorious. The knockabout Burlesque cavorts around Warlock (Cod-Pieces), Holst (Tyburn Lads), Moeran and Grainger. Nereid shows off Wass's plushy touch amid this essay in shifting tone colours. In a Vodka Shop is a Russian pastiche as rowdy as Burlesque but here looking back to Russian adventures which also bore fruit in the shape of the First Piano Sonata. Apart from a few moments when it sounds like an off-cut from Balakirev's Islamey this does not emulate Glazunov or Borodin. As for the First Sonata Bax wrote this with memories of an amorously Byronic adventure he had had in 1910 when he pursued a Russian beauty from the streets of London into her Ukrainian homeland. His passion was unrequited. The sonata sounds at times more like Balakirev with Liszt and Debussy also paying court. There is some particularly fragrant writing and playing in the first half in which there are times when this might have been Sorabji - incidentally a composer who greatly revered Bax’s music. It is a credit to Wass that he had me thinking outlandish thoughts such as what Ervin Niyereghazi would have made of this piece. There are some grand dramatic gestures here and just when you wondered if the soft focus tone of the piano was a function of the acoustic you get the passage from 10.09 and 14.40 onwards in which a hard-edged hieratic tone is asserted in the sharpest of focuses. This is the sort of writing which made me wonder about Wass as the next interpreter of Bax's Symphonic Variations - a worthy successor to Cohen, Hatto, Fingerhut and Piggott. Great Russian bells ring out through the finale of this serious Lisztian extravaganza of a piece. The end of Rachmaninov's First Suite for two pianos grasps a similar effect.

The opening of the Second Sonata recall the dark grumble of the start of the Second Symphony. Instantly the work proclaims a psychological state more profoundly troubled than anything in the First Sonata. This is music that is minatory. Little here is consolatory. At 5.02 we get a contrasting heroic and triumphant theme that is to return but then so is the occluded threatening music that opened the work. The playful pearlescent right hand runs at 17.00 foreshadow the glittering piano work in Winter Legends a decade later. At 19.32 Wass celebrates a glorious display of majestic victory. Listening again and again to this piece reminds the listener how Bax writes orchestrally for the piano, straining at the bounds of its percussive expressive essence.

Readably authoritative notes from Lewis Foreman who makes satisfying new connections and linkages.

The most direct competition is from Eric Parkin on Chandos CHAN 8496 where the two sonatas are coupled with shorter works including Lullaby, Winter Waters and Country Tune. His First Sonata takes 19:34 and the Second 23:41. That Chandos disc is at full price and the playing time is almost 20 minutes shorter. Overall his 1987 sound is the most natural balance between half lights and the glare of clarity. Then there is the deleted but powerful and extremely impressive intégrale of the four sonatas from Marie Catherine Girod on Opès 3D 12 21 84 3D 8008. Girod takes 20:17 in No. 1 and 25:03 in No. 2. As we have seen Parkin is even quicker in both cases. Girod's sound is very satisfactory but less suggestive, more matter of fact, than Naxos's. Certainly it is clearer than the muffled boxy mono sound accorded to Iris Loveridge in her pioneering recordings of most of the Bax solo piano music for Lyrita on RCS 10-12 and 26. Interestingly her Dream in Exile is despatched in 8:23. Her First Sonata takes a flighted 18:31 while her Second runs to 23:58.

Fingers crossed that Wass will be invited by Naxos to complete the cycle and also to record Bax's Winter Legends with David Lloyd-Jones and the RSNO perhaps with the three Northern Ballads.

Rob Barnett

see also reviews by John France and Graham Parlett

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