English Piano Sonatas
CD 1
Arnold BAX (1883 Ė 1953)
Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor (1910 rev 1917/1921) [19:29]
Piano Sonata No.2 in G (1917 rev 1920) [24:51]
Piano Sonata No.2: First appendix (music removed from the completed work) [1:38]
Piano Sonata No.2: Second appendix (music removed from the completed work) [4:48]
John IRELAND (1879 Ė 1961)
Piano Sonata (1918/1920 rev 1951) [23:36]

CD 2
Frank BRIDGE (1879 Ė 1941)
Piano Sonata (1923/1924) [28:44]
Arnold BAX
Piano Sonata No.3 in G sharp minor (1926) [25:08]
Piano Sonata No.4 in G (1932) [18:17]
Malcolm Binns (piano)
rec. 16 and 30 May, 13 June and 18 July 2007, Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, London. DDD
BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS 434/435CD [74:26 + 72:32]

I got to know the 1st and 4th Sonatas from the recording by Joyce Hatto (yes, we believe that these performances really are her) on the Revolution label (RCF 010, coupled with Toccata and Water Music) which stunned me. I subsequently bought the Lyrita monos of Iris Loveridge playing the complete Bax piano music (now available on 3 CDs LYRITA REAM.3113) which were a revelation. Over the years weíve had further recordings and broadcasts and weíve had a real chance to get to know these works, but they still arenít repertoire pieces for any pianist.

The Ireland and Bridge Sonatas havenít gone into any pianistsí repertoires either. In the case of the Ireland itís hard to see why this should be for it is a very approachable work. Itís had a handful of recordings and is well thought of, itís almost always spoken of in hushed voices - I particularly enjoy the John Lenehan recording (Naxos 8.570461). Likewise the Bridge, which is a difficult piece of work but it, too, has received a few recordings Ė I have always admired the one by Peter Wallfisch on a 2 LP set of Bridgeís songs and piano music (Pearl SHE 513/514).

So itís good to be able to welcome this new survey of Baxís Sonatas, as well as the other works, for itís time we had another set and new performances of the Ireland and Bridge will always be welcomed.

Malcolm Binns is a fine pianist. He has intelligence and he understands what this music does, he also has the technique necessary to play the pieces - most of them are fiendishly difficult - but he can also scale down his technique when playing a lighter work, such as the 4th Sonata. Binns seems happier with the more reflective, intellectual music, therefore his 1st Bax Sonata is too low key for me. I much prefer more out and out virtuosity and a feeling of throwing caution to the wind. The final pealing of bells should have a Rachmaninovian splendour as the sound rings out over Red Square. Here, itís all well and good but itís just a bit too polite and village green rather than St Basilís Cathedral. And hereís my main complaint about the performances of the first two Sonatas - good though they are, they are a little bit too cautious. There isnít the feel of wild abandon which is so essential to a lot of Baxís music Ė after all, he did describe himself as a ďbrazen romanticĒ. I have the feeling that every note has been carefully thought about, and put in its context before it was played, but the overall picture isnít there.

Binns is much happier in the Ireland Sonata, and he delivers some very exciting and well thought out playing. He obviously has a sense of the line of the music and where the argument is headed. This isnít a work which one will scream and shout about Ė indeed that is true of most of Irelandís music. He was a fastidious craftsman and thus most of his output satisfies, but never makes you want to jump up and down enthusiastically; it simply isnít that kind of experience. Binns knows this and thus his performance is totally in keeping with the style and feel of the music. This is great playing and a fine performance.

The second CD starts with Frank Bridgeís turbulent and troubled Sonata. This is a nervy, edgy performance, greatly understated, which makes the climaxes all the more telling, and the alienation of the piece all the more revealing. Dedicated to the memory of Ernest Bristow Farrar, a young British composer killed in the first war, Bridge, an ardent pacifist, threw all his deep hatred for bloodshed in general and war in particular, into this work and produced something which wasnít understood at the time, and even now is misunderstood by most people. Fortunately Binns understands it and delivers a towering performance of searing intensity, with a firm sense of the logic which underlies the whole composition. Bravo for this.

Baxís 3rd Sonata is much easier to listen to, but I doubt that itís much easier to play. A long, brooding allegro moderato takes its time to unravel its argument and Binns takes his time and lets the information come out when it wants to, in its own good time. The music becomes simpler as the Sonata progresses and Binns handles the winding down very well indeed, keeping the shape of the music always at the front of his mind. The 4th Sonata is, ostensibly, a lighter work than its companions but I would question that because the music is just as complicated and questing as anything heard before this. Perhaps itís the short time-scale that makes people think it is easier and lighter. Binns seems determined to prove that this is a bigger work than we imagined and his interpretations of the first two movements is masterly, the ebb and flow of the music being displayed clearly before us. The finale, in contrast, sets off like a rocket and humour is never far from the surface, no matter how complicated Baxís textures become.

Despite my misgivings concerning the performances of the first two Bax Sonatas these two CDs are essential listening for the performances are first rate and are very intelligently thought out. The sound is very good and the notes just what you need.

This is music which does not give up its secrets quickly and thus for repeated hearings you need insight of this excellence.

Bob Briggs

Essential listening Ö see Full Review