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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor (1910) GP127 (Rev. 1921 GP 240) [22.38]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in G major (1919) GP217 (Rev 1920 GP225) [22.57]
Dream in Exile: Intermezzo (1916) GP176 [11.50]
Burlesque (1920) GP229 [03.02]
Nereid (1916) GP177 [04.45]
In a Vodka Shop (1915) GP162 [03.59]
Ashley Wass, piano
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England 9th -11th October 2003.
NAXOS 8.557439 [74.27]

There are at least two other cycles of Bax’s piano works available. Well, one is in the shops and the other has to be hunted for in the secondhand vinyl stores. Eric Parkin’s account is still definitive. It is the benchmark for all future recordings of this music. However, my first encounter with most of Bax’s piano music was the set of four Lyrita albums recorded by Iris Loveridge. (Why, Oh why Lyrita do you not start re-issuing your extensive back catalogue!) I still have these records and I listened to a few of the pieces recorded on this present disc. Allowing for sound quality there is still something amazing and moving about these forty-odd year old recordings.

However the future beckons - and another cycle of Bax’s piano music is being issued. As a Bax enthusiast I naturally regard any project like this with great interest and pleasure. Let’s just say this at the outset: Ashley Wass justifies my excitement about this issue at ever point.

Bax wrote prolifically for the piano. He had a great facility for the keyboard and was able to write complex and technically difficult music that is highly effective. Much of this repertoire is of a romantic nature – however his fascination with the Celtic Fringe is obvious to anyone who pays attention to his music. There are other sources of interest: his trip to Ukraine in 1910 generated quite a flurry of works influenced by Russian music. And of course there was Harriet Cohen.

The Sonata No 1 in F# major was composed in the Ukraine. In 1910 Bax had gone there in pursuit of a Russian girl, Natalia Skarginska who had spurned him. She subsequently re-married and was later to die of typhoid. It is all revealed to us in the composer’s autobiography. This sonata is in one movement and owes much to the model by Liszt. However the actual sound of the music reminds me of Scriabin and perhaps Balakirev. The whole work is made up of constantly shifting moods and tempi. Much use is made of dark effects in the lower reaches of the keyboard. There is little here that a listener would regard as quiet and tender. However there is a lyrical theme that is marked ‘sospirando’ – sighing - which adds some respite from the prevailing mood. Lewis Foreman argues that this is definitely not a picture postcard view of Russia. It is much more about a young man’s despair at losing his love to another. The sonata was revised in 1921.

I really enjoyed Ashley Wass’s playing of this work. I am not particularly interested in ‘learned’ comparison of timings between various pianists. I just feel that on balance I prefer this version to the other two I have mentioned above. It is all about emotion. Does the piece move me? This recording certainly does.

The Sonata no.2 in G major is regarded by most commentators as being the most accomplished. Certainly is the best known of the four. It was composed in 1919; it comes after a raft of well-known compositions that portray Russian and Celtic themes. The great tone poems November Woods and Tintagel were already under his belt; the Russian Suite was the last of the nods to the Ukraine. The massive Symphonic Variations had been composed the previous year for Harriet Cohen. And finally the First String Quartet had been written just a couple of years previously.

The second sonata is in one huge movement, owing its form once again to Liszt. Perhaps the adjectives ‘grim’ and ‘menacing’ would be the best description of the substance of this music. Graham Parlett describes it as ‘dark and brooding.’ It is a complex work. I have not studied the score but I understand there are some five major themes in this sonata. The texture is thick and this thickness adds to the gloom. Here and there an allusion to folk song makes itself heard. Harriet Cohen described it as ‘an epic conception, this time taking the form of a contest between a legendary hero and the powers of darkness’. The programme notes suggest that it may be the composer’s response to the events of Easter 1916.

Ashley Wass controls the complexities of this difficult sonata with great skill. This is a work that is in danger of sounding dark from start to finish. Yet there is opportunity for a great variety of nuanced playing. Wass takes every opportunity to present this contradictory masterpiece as the magical yet foreboding work that it is. It was revised by Bax in 1920.

The gorgeous ‘Dream in Exile (1916) is dedicated ‘affectionately’ to Bax’s piano teacher Tobias Matthay. The work was originally to be called Capriccio and then later Intermezzo, which title is included in the entry in Graham Parlett’s catalogue. However, the music fits neither of these two titles. There is certainly nothing of the ‘intermezzo’ about this piece. Much of it is in two parts, creating quite a Spartan texture. It is only in the more animated central section that the musical density is increased.

A quotation of a motif that was later used in the tone poem November Woods is worked into this piece. It is redolent of regret and longing. The work begins and ends simply and is full of questions. This music is a dreamscape – wistful and melancholic dreams of some ‘Land of Lost Content’.

One of the phenomena of the middle decades of the 20th century was Murdoch and Murdoch. As a company they did much to promote British Music. I recall first coming across their imprint whilst looking into the music of John Blackwood McEwen. The present Burlesque was the very first work to be published by this company in 1920. It is a short piece that reveals a number of interesting characteristics about Bax in his milieu. Firstly there is what might be called a ‘tune’ that crops up all over the keyboard. Secondly there is a definite nod to Stravinsky and in particular Petrushka. There is nothing subtle about this work. The key changes are coarse and the constant change of metre between common and waltz time make for deliberate ambiguity. There is of course a quieter moment towards the conclusion but the prevailing style is ‘knockabout.’ We hear Bax’s sense of humour coupled to his virtuosic keyboard technique. Altogether a good piece – although do not expect a masterpiece.

Nereid (1916) is all Harriet Cohen! It was originally called Ideala and was dedicated to her. To my ears it is the most attractive of the miniatures on this disk. It is impressionistic – no doubts about that. I detect nods to Debussy throughout. Bax himself was a little disparaging about it; he said that it is ‘nothing but tone colour.’ And of course perhaps he is correct. There is a recurring rhythmic figure that underlies the entire piece – the interest is expressed above this flowing undercurrent. Colin Scott-Sutherland describes it as a ‘graceful aquatint’. Just for the record the Nereids were sea maidens and were daughters of Nereus – The Old Man of the Sea. Curiously Naxos gives 1919 as the date of this work, whereas Parlett’s Catalogue states 1916.

There is no doubt that this is lovely sound – although I do think that the structure of the work is a little loose. However, Ashley Wass is able to create a suitably ‘liquid’ style that is absolutely convincing for this little known piece.

In a Vodka Shop is a fun piece. It was composed as part of Bax’s offerings to the nineteen year old Harriet Cohen. He had met her at a tea party in 1915 and had immediately become smitten. Bax is reputed to have written To a Maiden with a Daffodil overnight. However this present work along with the Princess’s Rose Garden was to follow a few weeks later.

This Russian ‘souvenir’ is a pastiche if there was ever one. It is actually a vulgar dance with a couple of brave attempts to establish a ‘good’ tune and a few quieter moments. However the fierce, thumping element wins through. Scott-Sutherland describes the work as having a ‘robust and clattering vitality’. The work was actually dedicated to Myra Hess, who gave the work its first performance at the Grafton Galleries in London on 29th April 1915. The composer later orchestrated it as the third movement of his Russian Suite (1919)

Ashley Wass is an old boy of Chetham’s School in Manchester. He won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music with Christopher Elton and Hamish Milne. He is certainly seen as a rising star –only the second British pianist in twenty years to reach the finals of the Leeds Piano Competition (2000) and the first ever to win the World Piano Competition in 1997.

This present disk adds to Wass’s growing reputation. Bax is not the easiest of composer’s to play - either technically or interpretively. He handles all the problems with great skill and force. It is a bold step to embark on a recording of the complete works of this composer and I look forward to the succeeding issues with great interest.

The programme notes, are predictably written by that great Bax (and English Music) scholar, Lewis Foreman. They tell us virtually all we need to know to be able to enjoy and understand these works.

The CD sounds good and is definitely enhanced by the erotic painting on the cover by Max Klinger – ‘Triton and Nereid (1895).’

John France

see also review by Graham Parlett

Colin Clarke interviews Ashley Wass

Arnold Bax web-site

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