Like so many composers, Sir Arnold Bax is
known by only a fragment of his large output of music. Chief
among the neglected areas of his achievement is the chamber
music, which is certainly less frequently performed and recorded
than his richly romantic orchestral scores.
Therefore it is good to find these viola
pieces coupled in an appealing budget release from Naxos, pleasingly recorded by a particular talented
player and his colleagues. Bax enjoyed an enduring friendship
with the great Lionel Tertis (subject of a recently published
biography by John White), and the substantial Sonata of 1922
is one of his finest compositions in any genre. The opening
makes an arresting impression, at once atmospheric and expressive,
while the scherzo is particularly exciting rhythmically. Martin
Outram plays with warm expressiveness and a suitably rich tone,
while Julian Rolton on the piano is recorded in just the right
balance of perspective.
There is no question that the Viola Sonata
ranks as the most significant composition among those collected
here, and it is worth the price of the disc on its own. Alternative
recordings are not numerous, and the most interesting is probably
from Biddulph (LAB 148, mono) by the legendary William Primrose,
accompanied by Harriet Cohen, famous for her relationship with
the composer. However, the historical interest needs to be offset
against the distinct lack of bloom of the pre-war recording.
Earlier still, the composer and Lionel Tertis recorded the piece
in 1929, though their version has remained out of the catalogue
for several years.
That same year of 1929 Bax composed the
Legend for viola and piano, music of serious and nostalgic character
which finds him at his most darkly expressive. The other items,
the Concert Piece for viola and piano, and the Trio for violin,
viola and piano, are both early works, written well before the
First World War. The latter is the more substantial of the two,
and must rate as one of the strongest compositions from this
phase of Bax’s creative life.
see also Review
by Jonathan Woolf