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Private Passions
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Sonata in E flat major (1921) [34.10]
In the Night (Passacaglia) (1914) [8.35]
Four Pieces (1947) [18.32]
Legend (1935) [8.24]
Harriet COHEN (1895-1967)
Russian Impressions (1913) [9.32]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. 2017 CBSO Centre, Birmingham, UK

Pianist Mark Bebbington is a champion of British music; one thinks immediately and immediately of his albums of solo piano music by Alwyn, Bliss, Bridge, Ireland and Vaughan Williams. Now Bebbington has released an album of piano music that combines four works by Bax, including the rarely recorded E flat major Sonata, together with a short set of pieces by the composer’s muse Harriet Cohen. The album title Private Passions acknowledges both Bax and Cohen’s long personal relationship and their shared love of the piano. According to the notes Bax’s Four Pieces and Cohen’s Russian Impressions are first recordings.

Bax’s piano music, particularly the four numbered Sonatas, were first introduced to me thanks to Eric Parkin’s survey on Chandos and latterly Ashley Wass on Naxos, a collection I highly prize. In 1959/62 Iris Loveridge recorded the piano music including the four numbered sonatas and these mono recordings have been remastered on Lyrita. In addition, Michael Endres in 2005 set down five piano sonatas (including the E flat major) for Oehms Classics but these are sets I haven’t yet heard. I notice that John McCabe recorded the E flat major Sonata together with the Second Sonata on the Continuum label.

Bax is represented here by four works; the longest, at thirty-four minutes, is the three movement Sonata in E flat major. Completed in 1921 the work is positioned chronologically between Sonata No. 2 (1919) and No. 3 (1926). With a replacement slow movement, it was the basis for his First Symphony. After the symphony was premiered, the sonata lay in Cohen’s private papers until she donated the manuscript to British Library after his death. Never publicly performed during the composer’s lifetime, John Simons made the first recording of the complete sonata released on cassette in 1982 and it was pianist Noemy Belinkaya who gave the first public performance at the Purcell Room, London on the occasion of the Bax centenary in 1983. Angrily restless and occasionally ferocious, in Bebbington’s hands the opening movement is variegated with passages of relative calm and at times a glimpse of serenity. Played with significant sensitivity, the slow movement, marked Lento con molto espressione, creates a beguiling mood, while the Scherzo: Finale is extremely percussive and full of drama. Overall the sonata evoked for me images of Charles Soper’s illustrations from Kingsley’s The Water Babies.

Completed in 1913, In the Night (Passacaglia) was not published or performed publicly during the composer’s lifetime. Cohen knew the work well and played it privately; maybe it was a personal gift from Bax. Martin Roscoe gave the first performance in 1986 at BBC Studio 7, Manchester.

Bebbington accentuates the moody and sultry character of this passionate nocturne that builds to a central climax then fades away. The most recent work on the album is the Four Pieces written in 1947 during the final decade of Bax’s life, a period in which he wrote comparatively little for solo piano. Bax gave no name to the set apart from the respective title allocated to each piece: ‘Fantastic March’, ‘Romanza’, ‘Idyll’ and ‘Phantasie’. Jonathan Higgins introduced the Four Pieces at the British Music Information Centre, London in 1983. The first piece, ‘Fantastic March’ feels convincingly like toy-soldiers marching; the ‘Romanza’ has a dreamily romantic feel; the ‘Idyll’ is a passionate outpouring and ‘Phantasie’ is also fiercely passionate, containing a dreamy central section. The final work on the album is Bax’s Legend a single-movement work taking eight and a half minutes to perform here. Written in 1935, Bax had been delighted with John Simons’ performance of his Third Piano Sonata and dedicated the Legend to him. Bebbington relishes the sheer drama of the Legend, confidently contrasting the passages of relative calm.

A leading British concert pianist Harriet Cohen had a forty-year long relationship with Bax (who met Cohen was she was sixteen) and could be considered his muse. Cohen who studied at Royal Academy of Music in her younger years also composed, and evidently Bax was a constant source of encouragement. Cohen’s work is known to me only from her piano transcriptions of J.S. Bach’s Cantatas and Chorale Preludes. Here Cohen is represented by her short four-work set of Russian Impressions. The set seemingly dates from around 1913 and Bax knew them, writing to Cohen how much he enjoyed hearing her perform the pieces. There is no evidence of a public performance of the Russian Impressions until Mark Bebbington played them in 2017 at the Central Synagogue, London. This is a charming set of piano miniatures, evoking descriptive scenes remarkably well. Yet these are very different to the Bax works on this album which predominantly have more depth, weighty with a symphonic quality. Nevertheless, Russian Impressions is enjoyable and I’m glad of the opportunity of hearing them.

Bebbington’s exciting playing is certainly robust and punchy, eminently well suited to Bax’s powerful writing, yet he can be sensitive when required. Playing a Steinway Model D, Bebbington made this album at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham; he has been closely recorded with a satisfying clarity that suits the passionate and crashing waves of sound that Bax regularly creates. A noted Bax specialist who has catalogued the composer’s music, Graham Parlett is the author of the booklet essay which I find informative and easy to read.

This is the CD that I’ve reviewed but I notice on the download there is a bonus Bax track the so-called ‘Salzburg’ Sonata in B flat: Lento Espressivo a pastiche thought to be from 1937.

Despite the presence of some lighter pieces, for those new to Bax’s piano music I don’t think this album is the place to begin. For newcomers an ideal starting point is Ashley Vass’ Piano Works, Vol. 1 on Naxos (review). Nevertheless, Mark Bebbington is on commendable form and Bax admirers will welcome this compellingly performed album ‘Private Passions’ on Somm Céleste.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Nick Barnard (Recording of the Month) ~ Ian Lace

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