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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Violin Sonata No.2 (1915) [30:55]
Ballad for Violin and Piano (1916) [6:48]
Legend for Violin and Piano (1915) [9:28]
Sonata in G minor: Allegro appassionato (1901) [7:34]
Sonata in F major (1928) [18:45]
Laurence Jackson (violin)
Ashley Wass (piano)
rec. 1-4 December 2004 (Sonata No.2), 1-4 December 2005, Potton Hall, Suffolk, England. DDD
NAXOS 8.570094 [73:30]


The ever-growing ranks of lovers of English chamber music will be in their element here. Released as part of the company’s 20th Century British Music series this second volume of Bax’s works for violin and piano is once again performed by violinist Laurence Jackson, and pianist Ashley Wass. I recently reviewed the winning first volume containing the first and third sonata on 8.557540 – a joy to hear. This was a double review combined with a disc of Bax’s works for viola and piano on Naxos 8.557784.

The present disc opens with Bax’s Violin Sonata No.2 from 1915 a score contemporaneous with the orchestration of the Nympholept and preceding The Garden of Fand. It seems that Bax withheld the sonata for a few years before giving it considerable revision in 1920. After which it was premiered by the violinist Bessie Rawlins with Bax at the Wigmore Hall, London. The Sonata is cast in four distinct movements that are played continuously. This is probably Bax’s finest chamber score and although I attend numerous chamber recitals I have yet to see it programmed.

The movement is marked Slow and gloomy. Contrasting moods define this splendid movement and one notices the stamping piano part. At times I was reminded of the opening Modéré from Ravel’s Violin Sonata; a score composed over a decade later. There seems to be little emphasis on Slow and gloomy here. One minute Bax is communicating confidence, warmth and comfort, the next a switch to darkness and unease. The second movement bears the evocative title of The Grey Dancer in the Twilight. Bax described it as a, “dance of death”. For me the profusely optimistic and buoyant opening half of the movement has the feel of Gallic cafés. One notices the Dies Iræ motif but it does not predominate. From around 3:18 the mood shifts to one of aquatic mystery with a touch of apprehension.

Initially the third movement, marked Very broad and concentrated, evokes summer pastoral vistas with an episode of angst and tension between 2:15-2:57. Bax creates a fatiguing atmosphere radiant with nostalgic yearning for the happy carefree days of youth. Self-assured, forthright, often angry and brutal the final movement, marked Allegro feroce makes a welcome appearance after what has gone before. One notes the return of a passage of a watery quality from 1:44. Around 5:31 there is a distinct second half to the movement containing music of a rather ambiguous character. Here one cannot easily decide if the temperament is relaxing or if there is an underlying tension. In the Coda the score fades away placidly into the distance. 

The Ballad for Violin and Piano was composed in 1916, the same year as his orchestral tone poem The Garden of Fand. The unsettling events of the Easter uprising of armed nationalists in Ireland may have been a major influence for the powerful single movement score. Dedicated to violinist Winifred Small it seems that that the Ballad was consigned to the drawer for in excess of a decade until Bax undertook revision in 1929. The Ballad could easily represent a squall at sea contrasted with the butterfly-like delicacy of a summer cornfield. 

From 1915 the Legend for Violin and Piano is a substantial single movement work. This dark and unsettling score may well reflect Bax’s abhorrence at the mounting carnage of the Great War. Violinist Winifred Small and pianist Harriet Cohen performed the score in 1916 at the Aeolian Hall, London. The rocking introduction to the Legend serves as a harbinger of the unhurried and mournful disposition that permeates the music.

The Sonata in G minor composed in 1901 is from Bax’s early days as a student at the Royal Academy of Music. Designed as a single movement marked Allegro appassionato Bax dedicated the score to his then violinist girlfriend Gladys Lees, a fellow Academy student. Providing a fascinating insight into Bax’s fledgling composing activities the score has a dance-like opening that soon transforms into a concentrated movement of knotty tension. 

The final work on the disc, the two movement Sonata in F major from 1928, is sometimes referred to as the fourth violin sonata. The sonata is more widely known in Bax’s 1930 reworking as a Nonet for flute, clarinet, oboe, harp, two violins, viola, cello and double-bass. Bax seems to have consigned the F major score to the drawer. Consequently it was not performed until 1983 for the centenary celebrations of Bax’s birth. The generally agreeable nature of the first movement Molto moderato predominates, however, one senses that sinister undercurrents are never far away. The temperament of the high-spirited Allegro gives way to a calmer and reflective section at 2:41-4:55. From point 5:47 the music takes on a slower, more disconcerting quality that peaceful fades away. 

There is competition in the catalogues for the Bax violin sonatas, although, I have not heard the alternative recordings. Perhaps the best known are the accounts from violinist Erich Gruenberg and pianist John McCabe who recorded the Violin Sonatas No. 1 & 2 on Chandos 8845. The violinist Robert Gibbs and pianist Mary Mei-Loc Wu have recorded the Violin Sonatas No. 2-4 on ASV CD DCA1098. They have also recorded the Violin Sonata No. 1 and the one movement Violin Sonata in G minor on ASV CD DCA1127. In addition violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Martin Roscoe have made a recording of the Violin Sonata No. 2 for the label Global Music Network GMNC 0113 (c/w Elgar Violin Sonata). Not to mention the Concert Artist disc of No. 1 (ed.).

Throughout this Naxos disc the impressive Jackson-Wass duo let the music speak for itself with assured and perceptive playing of string and key. Their tone is refined and tuning faultless.

For Naxos the team of Walton and Thomason provide defect-free production. In addition the essay from Lewis Foreman is of a standard that all authors should aspire to in what is a most attractive release. Bax’s reputation can only gain enhancement from this superbly performed and recorded second volume of violin sonatas from Naxos.
Michael Cookson

see also Review by Ian Lace




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