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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Music for Two Pianos

Festival Overture (1909) [13:51]
The Poisoned Fountain (1928) [4:12]
Moy Mell (The Happy Plain) (An Irish Tone-Poem) (1917) [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 and Martin Roscoe (pianos)
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, 21 January 2007 (Festival Overture); St George’s Church, Bristol, 20-21 November 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.570413 [64:22]


Arnold Bax’s natural instrument was the orchestra and he wrote fluently for it – symphonies, tone poems, concertos - creating some of the most colourful works of the first forty years of the 20th century. 

It was really through recordings of some of the orchestral music – Vernon Handley’s Concert Artist issues of the 4th Symphony, The Tale the Pine Trees Knew and Symphonic Variations (with Joyce Hatto) and Norman Del Mar’s superb account of the 6th Symphony for Lyrita – that Bax captured the contemporary musical public in the 1960s. To be sure, Lyrita had recorded the complete piano music, and the complete cello and piano works, in mono in the 1950s but it was the opulence of the orchestral works which really rekindled – or should I say kindled? - interest in Bax’s music.

My first encounter with Bax’s music, in the flesh, was in St George’s Hall, Bradford – scene of so many of my earliest musical experiences – when Barbirolli conducted the Hall Orchestra and his wife, Evelyn Rothwell, in what was, if I remember correctly, only the second performance of Barbirolli’s own transcription for oboe and string orchestra of the Oboe Quintet. This was subsequently given at the Proms and a 1968 BBC studio performance was issued on a compilation of British music conducted by Barbirolli (BBC Legends BBCL4100-2). I was bowled over and subsequently grabbed any, and all, Bax recordings I could get my hands on. 

I discovered most of the music on this disk on a 1973 Cabaletta LP, played by Frank Merrick and Michael Round (HRS 2004) which was the first LP, and stereo, recording of any of these pieces. Most of Bax’s works for two pianos were written for the husband and wife duo of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson and they made the very first recordings of the Sonata and Hardanger (National Gramophonic Society NGS 156/158) and Moy Mell (NGS 102) - surely these recordings are prime candidates for re-issue. Next came Jeremy Brown and Seta Tanyel’s recording for Chandos (CHAN 8603) in the 1980s and now this new disk. 

Considering the size of the repertoire for two pianos it amazes me that these works aren’t played more often. But there are problems. The Sonata is a big, meaty work, which contains a lot of Bax’s characteristic orchestral sounds – this may sound silly but just listen to the opening of the finale: it’s straight out of the orchestral scores, especially the first two Symphonies. Until I heard this performance I was convinced that this was why the Sonata was neglected. Now I am not so sure. Such big textures can make balance a real problem, but Wass and Roscoe, helped by a crystal clear recording, make even the thickest of the Sonata’s sonorities sound quite natural, sometimes approaching transparency. There are still moments where I expect an orchestra to come crashing in, but in general I have been convinced of the validity of this music as purely piano music. The Celtic sound world of the slow movement is especially well handled. 

The Sonata is the biggest work here and, quite rightly, takes center-stage. What surrounds it is a mixture of the fun and the serious. 

In his fine notes Lewis Foreman says that this version of the Festival Overture - it also exists on a version for orchestra - reminds him of Percy Grainger at his most extrovert and, as well as this, there’s more than a touch of music hall to it. Surprisingly, the sudden intervention of a fugue only serves to heighten the spirits. It’s a fun piece, but will come as a shock to anyone who only knows the serious side to Bax. It serves as a wonderful overture to what follows. Hardanger is a splendidly joyous companion piece to the Overture, a happy romp which brings the recital to a satisfying close whilst Moy Mell, subtitled An Irish Tone-Poem, take us back to the composer’s beloved Ireland. It achieves much in its short time span, and is quite translucent in its language. 

The other three works are intensely serious, darkly hewn pieces, passionate and withdrawn; The Poisoned Fountain, for instance, is a strange kind of, muted, scherzo, a seascape (Bax loved his seascapes) with a darkness at its centre. 

This is not a disk made for easy listening. The music is difficult, with the exception of the first and last works, which are the exception to the rule, and needs time for contemplation and reflection. I’ve known this music for the better part of thirty five years and still haven’t fully come to terms with it. But it does repay study and performances of this stature will do a lot to help disseminate the work to a wider audience. Take your time and there’s much to admire here.

Bob Briggs

see also Review by Dan Morgan



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