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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Complete Piano Sonatas
Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor (1910 revised 1917 and 1921) [17:51]
Sonata No.2 (1919-20) [24:07]
Sonata No.3 in G sharp minor (1926) [26:51]
Sonata No.4 (1932) [18:54]
Sonata in E flat major (1921) (First Symphony) [32:25]
Michael Endres (piano)
rec. Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR Cologne, January and March 2005
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 565 [69:00 + 51:26]
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It seems that German pianists – some of them at least – are getting to grips with British piano music. No sooner had I listened to the complete Cyril Scott sonatas played by Michael Schäfer on Genuin GEN 85049 than the complete Bax sonatas turn up on Oehms Classics (see review).

Michael Endres plays Bax with a real sense of direction and control. Unlike Schäfer’s Scott there are no moments when this elides into brittleness or gabbled phrasing. One senses that Endres has not only the notes but also the idiom securely under his fingers.

In the First Sonata he makes a powerful alternative to Eric Parkin’s more leisurely Chandos reading. Endres really does start with the prescribed “very decisive rhythm” and is commanding and purposeful. Parkin by contrast is more grand seigniorial in approach and indeed sonority and somewhat more measured. The recapitulation of that highly lyric Ukrainian theme is pure limpidity in Parkin’s hands – but somewhat more forcefully expressive in Endres’s. He’s also excellent in pointing out shifting left hand melody lines. In fact Endres’s is probably the quickest No.1 on record – certainly quicker than Parkin, Iris Loveridge (Lyrita LP, long deleted), Ashley Wass’s new Naxos recording and the old Frank Merrick LP. Baxians must hope that Loveridge’s cycle will one day reappear and is it too much to hope that someone could revivify the Merrick Edition, uneven and sloppy though the playing sometimes became?

The Second Sonata takes a most acceptable tempo, on a par with Parkin – actually fractionally slower overall – but a similarly engaging sense of momentum, rhythmic incision and architectural surety. Parkin opens with perhaps more inexorable drama and foreboding, a feeling enhanced by the spaciously brooding Chandos acoustic. By comparison the Oehms sound world is harder and colder, less accommodating, a not unattractive aural solution to some of the writing in fact. Where Parkin does score is in his resounding chording, both triumphant and elastic. Endres, a really commanding musician, prefers a harder glint, a more tensile hard-bitten approach. I think his solutions are always cogent and convincing and his playing is as commanding as any on disc.

It’s clear by now that Endres’s cycle is from the top-drawer. Those who find Bax in the old critical way discursive and sectionalised will find Endres bracing. He’s also a most sensitive and astute player, and sees Bax from a cooler place than one is perhaps used to these days. Comparisons with Iris Loveridge are not entirely superfluous in this respect, or indeed in matters of phrase building.  Thus one may prefer Parkin’s more evocative phrasing in Sonata No.3 to Endes’s more dispassionate sounding playing but this degree of objectification brings its own reward. The Rachmaninovian profile of Parkin’s slow movement contrasts with the tarter urgency of the German’s playing. Similarly Endres’s indulges bigger dynamic gradients in the finale and is choppier and more assertively phrased. Parkin’s rolling waves are superb; maybe however Endres’s more disruptive playing gives Bax a more disruptively modernistic profile. He is also, I think it must be admitted, the better technician.

That drier Oehms studio acoustic gives the Fourth Sonata a more tensile quality. It means that the central movement has a tension between the slight lullaby feel imparted and the less sensuous tone cultivated by Endres. Certainly Parkin for one brings more overt colour to bear and is more outwardly romantic. Endres remains the more troubling. Endres is the more quixotic and puckish in the finale – chording is lighter, the phrasing a touch more mobile - while Parkin ends in a blaze.

To the four sonatas we can add the Sonata in E flat major, which Harriet Cohen and Arthur Alexander suggested would function better as a symphonic statement. It subsequently became the First Symphony. In the booklet Endres refers to this as the most “untamed” of the sonatas and also possibly the most original. It’s rare on disc, which makes this recording of it, set in the context of the four numbered sonatas, so valuable. Endres certainly plays it with the utmost concentration and conviction and once more his acuity is sure in matters of the bigger paragraph, the longer span. This is playing of a thoroughly impressive pedigree, aware of the subsequent orchestral reworking doubtless but treating the sonata in strictly pianistic terms, allowing the more orchestral moments to emerge organically and without any kind of benign hindsight.

Promisingly Endres is committed to the music of, amongst others, Dyson, Bantock and Moeran. Let’s hope this gifted, assured and wholly accomplished artist can pursue his enthusiasms on disc. This set offers great, rewarding and challenging playing and you will be stimulated by its insights.

Jonathan Woolf





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