Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Violin Sonata in G minor (in one movement) (1901) [8.17]
Violin Sonata No. 1 in E (1921) [33.49] Ballad for violin and piano (1916) [7.23] Legend for violin and piano (1915) [10.19]
Robert Gibbs (violin)
Mary Mei-Loc Wu (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, England (G minor Sonata), November 2000; St Giles, Kentish Town, London, September 1999 ASV PRESTO CD CDDCA1127 [60.38]
During its lifetime the late-lamented ASV label released, as I recall, six valuable CDs either devoted to the music of Bax or including music by him and other British composers. Three featured Bax’s chamber music. This album’s companion CD (ASV CDDCA1098) had the Violin Sonatas No. 2 in D and No. 3 with the Sonata in F which received its world premiere recording. A third album was given over to Bax’s complete works for cello and piano (ASV CDDCA896). A volume of piano trios included the Bax trio in B flat and two others by Stanford and Holst (ASV CDDCA925). Another disc (ASV CD DCA 891) had Emma Johnson playing Bax’s Clarinet Sonata in B flat with other works including pieces by Bliss, Ireland and Vaughan Williams. Finally ASV released an album of Sacred Music by Bax and Whitlock (ASV CD DCA 941). Critics’ reception of these CDs was very favourable.
Bax often described himself as ‘an unashamed romantic’ and this description fits so many of his works that were often inspired by wild isolated landscapes and seascapes in all conditions serene and turbulent – and his numerous women especially the concert pianist Harriet Cohen. The Sonata in G is an amazingly accomplished piece for a young man of eighteen, written for his sweetheart of the day, Gladys Lees when he was into his fourth term at the Royal Academy of Music. The music is both intimately romantic and wild and abandoned and one notices even then the mature Bax style in embryo and his tell-tale musical fingerprints peeping through the fabric. Later, in 1916 Harriet Cohen was to be the pianist at the first performance of Bax’s Legend. This piece was possibly the only work by Bax that revealed his reaction to the fate of friends killed in the Great War. As Lewis Foreman observes “it could well be called ‘elegy’.” Beginning in serenity and tranquillity, its atmosphere darkens considerably to a landscape of horror. The third shorter item, the Ballad written in the year after Legend, again deals with the turbulence of those days, but this time the music is set during the days of the Easter Rising in Dublin in which so many of Bax’s Irish friends were involved.
The main work in this programme was influenced by another young woman who so touched the young impressionable Bax’s heart that he pursued her to her homeland in the Ukraine. Alas it was not to be and he was mortified when she chose another. That experience together with the works of Russian composers and that land’s folk music influenced his music. One composer whose music impressed him was Rachmaninov and that composer’s obsession with the Dies Irae and tolling bells find fleeting references in the score of this Violin Sonata in No. 1 in E. The intensity of his passion and yearning for the girl is very apparent. In the scherzo second movement the music might suggest wild elemental forces. One feels a shiver through the music that might suggest a wild desperate chase through blizzard conditions. Folk gypsy-like material is heard at other times. The Finale returns to romantic turbulence and Bax had at one time headed its manuscript with a quotation from Yeats: “A pity beyond all telling is/Hid in the Heart of love.”
Robert Gibbs and Mary Mei-Loc Wu are very well attuned to the Bax idiom and deliver spirited, passionate and most atmospheric readings.