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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Violin Sonata No.1 in E major (1910-15, rev. 1920 & 1945) [32:08]
Original second and third movements of Sonata No.1 in E major (1910) [23:30]
Violin Sonata No.3 (1927) [20:12]
Laurence Jackson (violin)
Ashley Wass (piano)
rec. December 2004, December 2005, Potton Hall, Suffolk, England. DDD
NAXOS 8.557540 [75:50]
 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Viola Sonata (1922) [22:37]
Concert Piece for viola and piano (1904) [12:30]
Legend for viola and piano (1929) [9:26]
Trio in one movement for piano, violin and viola, Op.4 (1906) [16:29]
Martin Outram (viola)
Laurence Jackson (violin)
Julian Rolton (piano)
rec. February 2005, Potton Hall, Suffolk, England. DDD
NAXOS 8.557784 [61:03]
 



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The Bax revival continues with these two welcome releases from Naxos as part of their 20th Century British Music series. They will delight the ever-growing ranks of lovers of neglected English chamber music.  
 
Bax was highly productive in the genre of the violin sonata as he wrote five between the years 1901 and 1945 and published three of them. On the first disc is the three movement Violin Sonata No.1 in E major that Bax composed between 1910-15 and revised both in 1920 and in 1945. It is documented that the Sonata No.1 was inspired by the composer’s infatuation with a Ukrainian girl named Natalia Skarginska. Bax must have been dissatisfied with the second and third movements of the score as Winifred Smith and Myra Hess only performed the first  movement at the Steinway Hall, London in 1914. In 1915 Bax wrote new second and third movements. Bax on piano together with violinists Paul Kochanski and Bessie Rawlins performed revised versions of the 1915 score in London but we are not told about the first performance of the 1945 version that is recorded here in a slightly cut form.  
 
The opening pages of the Moderato tempo convey a strong sense of the sound-world of Ravel with a few hints of Debussy-like impressionism. The soaring emotion of this absorbing music must undoubtedly be a passionate declaration of love. Under Jackson and Wass the central Allegro vivace - poco piu lento has a relentless yearning and pleading quality that feels almost stifling. Although not always the case in violin sonatas, Bax’s writing certainly gives the piano part parity with the violin. In the final movement marked Moderato tempo - smooth and serene the duo evokes an unsettled mood of searching and pining. The quiet conclusion doesn’t really provide a satisfactory resolution to the intense emotional events we have experienced.          

Evidently for the first time on a recording we hear a performance of the original 1910 second and third movements of the Sonata No.1 in E major that the composer discarded. These, incidentally, are longer than the movements that replaced them.
 
Jackson and Wass reveal the fascinating original second movement, marked slow and sombre, as containing an abundance of tension of an almost claustrophobic nature. A more calming section from 1:47 provides a welcome respite from what has gone before to develop between 2:53-3:15 a slightly sinister tone. At 3:45 an attractive dance-like passage feels restrained as if needing to be allowed to speed-up. The duo quicken the tempo and increase the intensity at 8:15-8:45 in an episode of raw emotion. The music gradually slows leaving an air of mystery to conclude the movement. Marked Allegro molto vivace the robust and galloping original third movement of the E major Sonata is fiery, here almost reckless in character. From 2:20 the pace slows and begins to exude a sultry moodiness. At 4:44 the galloping spirit makes several attempts to return but is always thwarted. The straining leash is finally broken by the duo at 6:01 with the music making a headlong dash for freedom. From 7:45 a more relaxed mood arrives until 9:11 when a frenzied intensity concludes the movement.
 
Bax wrote his dual movement Violin Sonata No. 3 in 1927. The score was first performed by Bax and the violinist Emil Telmanyi in London in 1929. In the Moderato opening Jackson and Wass provide an initial impression of the sound-world of Elgar blended with hints of Delius. This has a slightly ruminative nature and one senses that Bax might have been apprehensive over the anticipation of an exciting event. I loved the way the duo play the broad expressive sweep of the attractive melodies whilst maintaining a relative restraint. The movement closes with an exceptionally lovely violin passage from 7:50. In the Final movement marked Allegro molto the players convey a pulsating yet dark mood of deep foreboding as if Bax was describing a stormy winter night. At 2:42-3:07 the duo really quicken the pace to one of fiery aggression. One welcomes the extended peaceful interlude of rich autumnal shades between 3:56-7:00. As the music becomes increasingly tormented in character Jackson and Wass bring the work to an unsettling close.
 
There is some competition in the catalogues for these Bax violin sonatas, although, I am not personally familiar with any of them. There are accounts from violinist Erich Gruenberg and John McCabe who have recorded the Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 on Chandos CHAN8845; from violinist Robert Gibbs and Mary Mei-Loc Wu with the Violin Sonatas Nos. 2, 3 & 4 on ASV CDDCA1098 (see review) who have also recorded the Violin Sonata No. 1 and Violin Sonata in G minor (in one movement) on ASV CDDCA1127 (see review) and also from violinist Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe playing the Violin Sonata No. 2 on GMNC 0113.
 
The second Naxos disc contains welcome recordings of four of Bax’s chamber works for viola. All four scores were composed specifically with the distinguished and influential British violist Lionel Tertis in mind.  
 
The key work on this release is the three movement Sonata for Viola and Piano. Bax this in 1922 and it was first performed the same year by Tertis at the Aeolian Hall in London. Acknowledged by many as Bax’s finest chamber score it seems as if the composer is bidding farewell to the mythological Celtic dreamland of his formative years. In the hands of violist Martin Outram and pianist Julian Rolton the opening Molto moderato - Allegro is languid and yearning, often reflective with a dark and rich splendour. The music felt evocative of the breathtaking beauty of a winter scene with an icy expanse of lake in a snow-clad valley. The central movement is a complete contrast with its mainly unsettling mood of torment and agitation. At 5:36-6:05 the duo swiftly increase the pace like a steam locomotive hurtling down a track. The wistful nature of the closing Molto lento is in many ways similar in character to the opening movement. The mood is broken at 3:22-4:20 with an uneasy episode of harrowing turbulence that Outram and Rolton execute magnificently. From 4:23 the stormy waters suddenly become calm and the movement drifts to its close with brooding nostalgia. This is a magnificent performance.                     
 
It is a number of years since I heard a recording of the commanding 1937 version of the Viola Sonata from violist William Primrose and Harriet Cohen. I understand that their account forms part of the disc titled ‘William Primrose’ on the Pearl label, Gemm 9453; as part of the ‘William Primrose Collection - Volume 1’ on Doremi DHR 7708 and I note also on Dutton CDBP 9751. There is, I believe, an account played by Bax himself and violist Lionel Tertis on a disc titled ‘Tertis plays Bax’ on Pearl, Gemm 9918 and also as part of the set ‘Lionel Tertis, The Complete Columbia Recordings 1924-1933’ on Biddulph 82016. A more recent account, that was generally well received, is the 2002 Baton Rouge recording from violist Doris Lederer and Jane Coop on Centaur CRC2660 (see review).
 
The Concert Piece for Viola and Piano was premiered by Tertis in 1904 at the Aeolian Hall in London. The work opens with a contemporary feel but soon reverts to Bax’s more familiar Celtic fantasy world with the liberal use of Irish folk melodies, such as at 6:43. The dreamy passages at 7:51-9:20 and 11:01-12:22 present Bax at his most characteristically romantic.       
 
Written in 1929 following a commission from the famous American chamber music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge the Legend for Viola and Piano was also premiered by Tertis at the Aeolian Hall in London. Here we encounter the familiar pattern of dreamlike nostalgia combined with episodes of unsettling rancour. The Celtic folk-like elements are not as prominent here as in scores such as the Concert Piece for Viola and Piano.      
 
The Trio in One Movement for Piano, Violin and Viola, Op. 4 was composed around 1906 when Bax was in his early twenties. I was immediately struck by the highly rhythmic character of the score, especially the prominent and energetic piano writing. Certainly not the most remarkable of Bax’s chamber scores this worthwhile Trio in One Movement contains many fascinating passages and provides an early insight into his highly individual style. Here Martin Outram and Julian Rolton are joined by violinist Laurence Jackson who collectively contribute strongly and passionately being impressively attuned to the spirit of the score. 
          
Both discs have been well recorded by the Naxos engineers with a clear, cool and well balanced sound quality. Another advantage is the high quality booklet notes from Lewis Foreman.  
 
The general neglect of the vast majority of Bax’s chamber output is a loss to music lovers everywhere. With performances as good as these it remains a puzzle why such scores are not heard far more often. Next month I am attending a recital by Peter Cropper and Martin Roscoe of four Beethoven violin sonatas. As great as Beethoven’s music undoubtedly is, a contrasting and less familiar sonata included in such a programme, from say, Bax or one of his contemporaries would make a refreshing change. These two Naxos releases are to be treasured and not just by Bax admirers.  
 
Michael Cookson

see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf (8.557540 & 8.557784) and Terry Barfoot (8.557784)

British composers on Naxos page





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