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English Piano Sonatas
CD 1 [74:26]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)

Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor (1910, 1917-21) [19:25]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in G (1919-20) [24:51]
First Appendix (passage 1 removed from published version of Second Sonata) [1:38]
Second Appendix (passage 2 removed from published version of Second Sonata) [4:44]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)

Piano Sonata (in edition revised by composer and published in 1951 by Augener) (1918-20) [23:36]
CD 2 [72:32]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)

Piano Sonata (1921-24) [28:44]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)

Piano Sonata No. 3 in G minor (1926) [25:08]
Piano Sonata No. 4 in G (1932) [18:27]
Malcolm Binns (piano)
rec. 16, 30 May, 13 June, 18 July 2007, Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School. DDD
notes in English only.
BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS434-435CD [72:32 + 74:26]

Experience Classicsonline

 



Although many British composers active during the first half of the 20th century composed a lot of piano music, piano sonatas were not particularly plentiful. I can think of Benjamin Dale’s large-scale Piano Sonata in D minor Op.1, Alan Bush’s Piano Sonata in B minor Op.2 (1921) and of York Bowen who wrote several, although I have yet to hear them. There are no piano sonatas by RVW, Holst or Moeran. In such a context, the six piano sonatas recorded here likely represent the most substantial output in the genre composed during the period 1900-1950. All of them are large-scale, substantial works that were important milestones in their respective composer’s achievement, even if Bax may be best-remembered for his symphonies and orchestral works.

Bax’s Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor was first performed by Myra Hess as Romantic Tone Poem who played it later in 1919 as Symphonic Phantasy. These early alternative titles clearly point to the symphonic character of this substantial work laid-out in one vast single movement as was its successor, and also to the rhapsodic nature of the music that alternates many moods expressed in an often warmly romantic manner looking back to past models.

Bax composed his Piano Sonata No.2 in G in 1919 and revised it one year later. As already mentioned, it, too, is in one large-scale single movement. The music, however, displays considerable stylistic progress. I wonder if I am the only to hear some faint echoes of Stravinsky [at about 8:00 – track 2] as well as of John Ireland in some passages of this imposing work. The work ends with a lengthy epilogue as do the symphonies. It seems clear that by the time he composed the Second Piano Sonata Bax had found his true and highly personal musical voice. In spite of the work’s large-scale structure, the musical ideas are handled in a much tighter manner than in the somewhat rambling First Sonata. Malcolm Binns, who recorded the Second Piano Sonata many years ago, consulted a number of textual sources including the manuscript held in the British Library. This sheds light on Bax’s compositional process in that it contains two fairly important passages that were later replaced in the revised version. These passages are included here as Appendix 1 and Appendix 2 and will certainly prove very informative and illuminating for any Bax specialist, probably less so for the average music lover (I am one of these). Their inclusion in this comprehensive release is most welcome.

Before completing his Piano Sonata No.3 in G sharp minor (1926), Bax wrote yet another sonata that eventually became his First Symphony. Unlike its predecessors, it is cast in three movements much along the same lines as the symphonies; by that time, he had completed his first two symphonies. The weighty opening movement is followed by a quite beautiful Lento moderato opening in a dream-like atmosphere and building-up to a powerful climax before reverting to the opening mood. The third movement concludes the Third Piano Sonata in an assertive way. By the way, the insert notes label the third movement as Lento moderato, which I suppose is wrong.

"The piano sonatas by Bax are all demonstrably examples of his romantic and highly subjective musical style. However, by the time he came to write the Fourth Piano Sonata ... he had moved on somewhat to a less subjective and textually more simplified style" (Lewis Foreman). For once, it is both shorter than any of its predecessors and on a less epic scale than any of them. "The slow movement seems to be a paraphrase on an Irish folk tune Has sorrow thy young days shaded, according to Tilly Fleischmann" (Lewis Foreman). On the whole the Piano Sonata No.4 in G is somewhat lighter in mood and the music often displays a rather unusual linear clarity that one would not have readily associated with Bax. By comparison to its predecessors, the Fourth Piano Sonata may be less compelling and absorbing, but is still quite enjoyable, the slow movement being particularly attractive.

Now, I must confess – much to my shame – that I had never heard any of Bax’s piano sonatas before, so that listening to these recordings was quite a discovery and an important musical experience for me. My comments have been made, as if hearing new pieces, and – as usual – from the listener’s standpoint.

John Ireland often complained that he was not taken seriously as a composer because he did not compose any symphony or large orchestral works. His Piano Concerto and These Things Shall Be are probably his largest orchestral pieces. His impressive Piano Sonata (1918/20) more than compensates for the absence of a symphony in Ireland’s list of works. I had not heard it for many years and I had completely forgotten what a beautiful work it is, full of typical Ireland fingerprints: melodic, harmonic and rhythmic. It is in three movement of which the central Non troppo lento is the emotional core, a beautifully moving elegy. It seems that Ireland made some revisions in 1930 and 1951. The 1951 published revised version is played here, probably for the first time ever. John Talbot discusses this edition in the 2007 edition of the British Music Society’s journal British Music.

Frank Bridge’s imposing Piano Sonata composed between 1921 and 1924 and inscribed to the memory of Ernest Farrar, a most distinguished composer killed in action in 1918 shortly before the Armistice, is his only large-scale work for piano and one of his mature masterworks. By the time he had completed it, Bridge had begun exploring new musical horizons and estranging himself both from audience and critics for whom his new, more radical music-making proved too difficult. Fortunately, times have changed, and Bridge is now generally regarded as a great composer. The Piano Sonata is an often grim, sombre work full of rugged but powerful lyricism, that would soon become the mark of Bridge’s mature works such as the cello concerto Oration, the Second Piano Trio and the last two string quartets - the unquestionable peaks of his output.

This important and generous compilation was released to mark the fiftieth anniversary year of Malcolm Binns’ London debut recital at the Wigmore Hall in 1958; but it is – first and foremost – a magnificent collection of impressive and substantial British piano sonatas written during the first half of the 20th century. These works are still too-little known although things are now changing in terms of commercial recordings. They definitely represent their respective composers at their best. It is good to have these important works in one set, especially in fine performances such as these. The recorded sound is nicely natural throughout. The lavish insert notes include an illuminating interview of Malcolm Binns by Lewis Foreman and definitely make this generous release indispensable to anyone interested in British piano music.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Colin Scott Sutherland

 

 

 


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