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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf (8.557540 & 8.557784) and Terry
British composers on Naxos page