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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Music for two pianos
Festival Overture (arr. for two pianos) (1909) [13:51]
The Poisoned Fountain (1928) [4:12]
Moy Mell (An Irish Tone Poem) (1916) [9:02]
Sonata for two pianos (1929) [21:44]
The Devil That Tempted St. Anthony (1928) [6:31]
Red Autumn (1931) [5:33]
Hardanger (1927) [3:30]
Ashley Wass, Martin Roscoe (pianos)
rec. 21 January 2007, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk (tr. 1);  20-21 November 2006, St. George’s Church, Bristol (trs. 2-9)


Bax’s music seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment and the Naxos series devoted to his piano music – of which this is the fourth volume – is especially welcome. Even more so, given the advocacy of Ashley Wass, who has made something of a name for himself in British piano music, including Elgar and Bridge. He and fellow pianist Martin Roscoe certainly seem to have an affinity with Bax, whose impressionistic-mythological idiom is very much in evidence in the music he wrote or arranged for the celebrated piano duo, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson.

Although Bax is probably best known for his orchestral tone-poems he was first and foremost a talented pianist and that shines through in these two-piano pieces. His Festival Overture arrangement is wonderfully mobile and generally gregarious. He acknowledges its roots in ‘Continental carnival’ but as so often with Bax it’s all about moods. According to Lewis Foreman’s excellent liner-notes Bax even suggested the overture was in some sense ‘Bohemian’, to which the critic Edward J. Dent snootily replied: ‘His Bohemian overture was like Hampstead people in a Soho restaurant.’

A little unkind, perhaps, but it’s certainly true that Bax absorbed various musical influences, including the impressionists - in 1909 he accompanied some Debussy songs in the composer’s presence - and the Celtic Twilight as epitomised by Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival. The Poisoned Fountain is a good example of the former, with its constant watery refrains – shades of Debussy’s sunken cathedral – while Moy Mell testifies to his endless fascination with all things Irish.

According to Foreman Moy Mell is the ‘happy plain’ of Celtic mythology and Bax’s strange, sometime soft-grained, harmonies are wonderfully evocative. But even in this misty half-light Bax’s textures occasionally evince a crystalline, almost Ravelian, clarity. Wass and Roscoe seem so at ease in this repertoire, sensitive to each other and alive to all the music’s nuances and rhythmic subtleties. Add to that a generally pleasing acoustic and this disc is certain to appeal to both seasoned Baxians and newcomers alike.

Despite its more formal title the three-movement Sonata has a detailed programme, thanks to the insistence of Rae Robertson. The ‘languor’ of the first movement is evoked in the low murmurs at the outset, but that alternates with music of startling clarity and vigour, not to mention passages of Russian intensity. Debussy is in there somewhere, possibly even Rachmaninov, but it seems Bax has absorbed these influences and fashioned them into something that’s very much his own.

After this ‘coming of spring’ and evocation of ‘the sea in its many varieties of mood’ (Bax’s description) the slow movement enters the world of Celtic legend. There is a wonderful swirl and shimmer (starting at 1:40) with a rippling motif over a restless bass, the final chords subsumed by the enveloping mist. Very atmospheric music, imbued with an array of colours.

The concluding Vivace e feroce modulates out of mistiness into something much more hard-edged. Wass and Roscoe play with great concentration and intensity here, while at the start of The Devil That Tempted St. Anthony they manage to invest the quieter moments with an air of gentle piety. The devil certainly has some good tunes, though, the clamorous, even dissonant, figures in stark contrast to the earlier, more reverent, mood. As an exercise in diablerie it works well enough, but it strikes me as one of the weaker pieces in this collection.

Bax is on more familiar ground with Red Autumn, sketched in piano form before the First World War. It is the composer at his most effortlessly pictorial, full of muted colours and falling harmonies. Debussian it may seem in places but there is a distinctive ‘voice’ to be heard here, as indeed there is in Hardanger, his homage to Grieg. Intended as an encore piece for Bartlett and Robertson it’s a remarkably compact, iridescent little number, brimming with energetic, folk-like rhythms. Needless to say Wass and Roscoe dispatch it with considerable brio, a marvellous conclusion to a most rewarding disc.

If you know orchestral Bax you will have the measure of these scores. They are just as colourful and seductive and come across with so much life and sparkle that even the anti-Bax brigade must succumb to their manifold charms. Of course the success of this recording is due, in no small measure, to the advocacy and commitment of these two fine pianists. An utterly irresistible collection and a worthy addition to the Naxos/Bax project.

Dan Morgan






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