“[Bax’s] tunes that haunted me were the cello phrase opening
Bax’s Piano Quintet and the viola tune from Tintagel.” –
Felix Apprahamian - writing in March 1982 for the Foreword to
the First Edition of Lewis Foreman’s Bax – A Composer and
Bax’s Piano Quintet is a long-spanned, sprawling, complex work
- possibly too complex - certainly Lewis Foreman in his biography
of the composer suggests it is. There is an impression of there
being larger forces at work here than just a quintet. It stands
at the end of the period of his early works and marks a shift
in style to a more mature outlook. It can be seen to be pointing
the way towards his symphonies of the 1920s and 1930s. The string
writing includes many colourful effects while the piano part
is beautifully sensitive and decorative as well as assertive.
The first two movements were written very swiftly in mid-July
1914 but the third movement did not follow until the Great War
had been raging for several months. As Bax’s biographer, Lewis
Foreman suggests, “its colder atmosphere may well reflect the
dark and ominous cloud that had darkened the sunny landscape
of the earlier movements.”
Bax’s Piano Quintet was first performed at a private gathering
of a Music Club Concert in London’s Savoy Hotel on 19 December
1917 with Harriet Cohen and the English String Quartet. It is
tempting to think that Bax might have revised some of its music
between its conception and this private performance. Some part
of its influence might have been not just the Great War but
also the events in Ireland and, especially, the early experiences
of his turbulent relationship with his lover, Harriet Cohen.
It should be stated that Bax did not give any clue as to any
proposed programmatic origin for this remarkable work. Yet his
detailed expressionistic score markings would suggest that there
could have been a non-musical inspiration. Enigmatically what
might be regarded as Spanish inflections may be discerned, in
the second and third movements.
The Quintet opens with defiant, muscular piano chords and a
portentous cello theme redolent of the tempestuous and passionate
music that comprises so much of this epic, almost 19-minute-long
opening movement. There are quasi-dance measures, sometimes
merry, at other times wild and frenzied. The movement’s lyrical
episodes are tinged with yearning and possibly nostalgic regret.
Celtic influences and liturgical elements are also apparent.
The complex slow movement commences with pizzicato string chords.
Rippling watery piano figurations accompany a slowly-unwinding,
serenely-romantic string melody. Another liturgical figure arises
counterpointed by a persistent figure that is uncannily like
Bernard Herrmann’s obsessive habanera for Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Slow and quietly meditative string music contrasts with evocations
of sea-waves from the piano.
The finale continues the emphatic and tempestuous mood of the
opening movement and at about one minute in, those obsessive
Herrmann-esque figures are heard again leading to barbaric,
possessed dance figures. This is an extraordinary movement,
its temperature often icy, with some weird effects. The Celtic
influence is strong too.
Ashley Wass, so well-attuned to Bax’s idiom, as evidenced on
his previous, well-received, Naxos Bax releases, is partnered
by an equally responsive Tippett Quartet, to deliver a committed
performance of this passionate, capricious music.
Frank Bridge’s lovely, shorter Piano Quintet belongs to his
more accessible, first creative period. It was originally conceived
as a four-movement piece but it was radically revised in 1912
when the composer virtually re-wrote the first movement, shortening
it and lightening its textures, and compressing the two middle
movements into one. Like the Bax Quintet, it too begins in turmoil
but its darker pages vie with the most gorgeous melody, a tune
that has persisted in my mind for days, especially as played
so tenderly here. The second movement charms. It opens softly,
slowly and meditatively before another lovely romantic melody
unfolds. A touch of Mendelssohn follows with a scampering elfin
scherzo. The Allegro energico finale is forceful with
much energy and fire. A wistful tune voiced by the viola and
developed by the piano and strings brings lyrical relief.
Stunning performances of two important British Piano Quintets.