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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphonic Variations (1916-18) [45:49]
Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra (1949) [22:22]
Ashley Wass (piano)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, 21-22 May 2008. DDD
NAXOS 8.570774 [68:11]
Experience Classicsonline

In the early to mid-1960s Bax was represented in the catalogue by some of his most diffuse works. The two Revolution LPs of Symphony No. 4 and Symphonic Variations were examples. Not only that but those LPs were often flawed. I remember struggling with a really warped Fourth which pitched the cartridge and arm about like a fairly dramatic marine swell. These discursive works, including the RCA LSO/Downes Third Symphony, did not do Bax's reputation any great favours. Only when the Lyrita Bax Sixth Symphony came out and, up to a point, the Revolution LP of Tales the Pine Trees Knew, was some redress and re-balance offered.
The Symphonic Variations is very much a Harriet Cohen work. It was one that she as good as owned and which she kept other pianists away from. Patrick Piggott did however get to broadcast the work in Scotland despite her vehement protests. Also Joyce Hatto made the first recording of the piece in the mid-1960s for Revolution and this can be heard on Concert Artist. This is the genuine Hatto article, by the way. After Cohen’s death the way was clear for Fingerhut’s brand new digital recording with Bryden Thomson on Chandos.
This Naxos disc carries the work's third commercial recording. It is not quite as resplendently recorded as the Chandos but it is extremely good. The Chandos can now be had in a 2 CD format yet shorn of its original companions (Springtime in Sussex and Saga Fragment) alongside the very best of all Bax's works for piano and orchestra, Winter Legends.
Nothing can save the Symphonic Variations from being discursive – that’s part of its charm and its sometimes compelling atmosphere. There is something of the freewheeling meditation about this piece. It is as if the composer drifts in a sort of ecstatic reverie. The filigree and wash of colour and the occasional grandeur recall other rhapsodic works such as Gliere's Ilya Mourametz.
The work dates from earlyish in Bax's life - in fact from the time of the Great War, his grand and guilty passion for Harriet Cohen and his then separation from his wife. From 1949, just four years short of Bax's death comes the Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra. It’s a softer focus piece: largely unassertive and with a cool temperament. The start of its central Moderato tranquilo includes a prize-winning romantic floral melody – almost sentimental -  if soft in focus. It was written for Harriet to play and her Paris broadcast of the piece was once issued on an early 1980s private cassette which had limited circulation. It was advertised in one of the classifieds at the back of The Gramophone but never reviewed there; I was never sure who was behind the tape. Then in 1999 it had its first commercial release: a performance by Margaret Fingerhut was included on Chandos CHAN9715 which the then reviewer found made the work ‘often beautiful’. The Concertante might be condemned as ‘Bax and water’ but it has a watercolour attraction that discounts its pallor and lowered emotional pulse.
Ashley Wass clearly knows his stuff having already recorded four Bax CDs for Naxos on 8.557439, 8.557592 and 8.557769 and with Martin Roscoe the two piano works on 8.570413. We should not forget the two Naxos CDs encompassing the Bax works for violin and piano: 8.557540 and 8.570094.
The music is very nicely recorded and extremely well projected. We must now hope fervently for another Naxos volume to include the utterly compelling Winter Legends and Saga Fragment with Springtime in Sussex. More power to the elbow of the supportive BSO Endowment Trust who made this disc possible.
Baxians need to be on the look-out later this year for Mark Bebbington's world premiere recording of the Bax Concertino for piano and orchestra. It is as realised by that sensitive musician and magician of Bax re-animation, Graham Parlett. The Somm project uses the Orchestra of the Swan and will also include the John Ireland Piano Concerto – beautifully done by Bebbington in Worthing recently – and Ireland’s even more potent and concentrated Legend for piano and orchestra.
This Naxos is a fine disc including rarely recorded and very attractive late Bax.
Rob Barnett

Comment recieved

Enjoyed reading your review of Symphonic Variations but I think you mis-quoted my earlier review of that Concertante ' a performance by Margaret Fingerhut was included on Chandos CHAN9715 which the then reviewer found made the work ‘often beautiful’' In fact I wrote I only thought the central movement to be 'often beautiful' the outer movements are weak an opinion this latest recording only reinforces But what a fine recording of Symphonic Variations this is and an undervalued work.


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