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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Violin Sonata No.1 in E major (1910-15 revised 1920, 1945) [32:08]
Violin Sonata No.3 (1927) [20:12]
Original second and third movements of the First Sonata (1910): (Slow and sombre [11:43]; Allegro molto vivace [11:47])
Laurence Jackson (violin)
Ashley Wass (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, December 2004 
NAXOS 8.557540 [75:50]
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The Bax-Naxos chamber music series continues apace. Having recently reviewed the viola music – including the Sonata, Legend, Concert-Piece and the Trio for violin, viola and piano (see review) – we now turn to the first volume of the violin sonatas. Both Jackson, who recorded the Trio, and Wass, who’s recorded the sonatas, are by now Bax regulars. Potton Hall is an established recording base for Naxos and one familiar to both men.
Various pairings have tackled the First Sonata. In recent years Gruenberg and McCabe have recorded it on Chandos and the Robert Gibbs-Mary Mei-Loc Wu partnership have done so similarly for ASV. Back in 1965 Henry Holst and Frank Merrick recorded it, as they did the second and third. It’s been recently released on Concert Artist where the First is coupled with Delius’s Second Sonata (see review).
The Third Sonata has had a much less productive time. Holst and Merrick recorded it but after them no one until Gibbs and Mary Mei-Loc Wu did so. Historically minded collectors will know that a fragmentary 1936 BBC performance given by May Harrison and Charles Lynch has survived and can be found on Symposium 1075. Collectors only though as there are damaging gaps.
The new recordings naturally suffer no such indignity. The balance between instruments is fine and the recording location acoustic has been acutely judged. These are fine conditions in which to perform and record. Though it opens with a strangely Delian theme the Jackson-Wass duo catch the First Sonata’s turbulent drama with a fine ear for the lyricism and strangeness. Wass underscores the piano’s curious otherness from 6:00 in the first movement, bringing out a full complement of emotion. Jackson plays with well-calibrated intelligence. He doesn’t possess the big tone of Gruenberg or the astringent one of Holst; he’s rather more like Robert Gibbs in that respect, but he colours his tonal reserves with vivid imagination. Together the two stretch out the reflective lyricism that ends the first movement but without ever breaching structural bounds. And how well they obey the instructions in the poco più lento of the second movement, which is despatched with real feeling. The finale has the requisite serenity at 5:20 and also enough of the folkloric – Ukrainian flecks the last movement as much as Irish does earlier.
There’s a significant bonus of the original second and third movements, discarded by Bax. The slow movement is highly expressive. Lewis Foreman suspects a Baxian feint when the composer condemned it to May Harrison as “juvenile” – it certainly isn’t that but the rather hobbly dance enshrined within is more than a touch unconvincing. The discarded Allegro is best in the tolling bass of the piano in its slow section. This acts as a galvanising call to arms and anticipates some real fireworks, not least from the hard-pressed pianist. These are both world premiere recordings and need to be on the shelves of all Baxians.
The Third Sonata hasn’t fared so well as the companion sonata. It’s not hard to see why, as superficially it’s a less ingratiating work. But persevere and the rewards are considerable. Foreman notes that Henry Holst played it, as did Harrison - but Sammons also promoted it. Jackson blanches his tone especially finely in the first of the two movements and Wass insinuates ominous tread as well. The Rite of Spring elements that haunt the second movement are made rather explicit in this performance, as well as those oases of lyricism that form the central section. There’s a very ardent curve to the Baxian cantabile here.
The Naxos series has continued its devotion to Bax with impressive results. You need the previously unrecorded sonata movements if you’re serious about the composer. And the performances are eloquent and impressive. Next up will be the second and fourth sonatas.
Jonathan Woolf


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