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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Piano Sonata in E flat major (1921) [34:10]
In the Night (Passacaglia) (1914) [8:35]
Four Pieces (1947) [18:32]
Harriet COHEN (1895-1967)
Russian Impressions (c.1913) [9:32]
Arnold BAX
Legend (1935) [8:24]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. 2017, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, UK

Bax’s E flat Sonata had a curious history. On hearing it shortly after its composition, Harriet Cohen and Bax’s friend Arthur Alexander, urged him to convert it into a symphony. Thus Bax’s First Symphony was born, but with a new slow movement. This original piano sonata was never performed in Bax’s lifetime and only came to be performed in the early 1980s.

Not surprisingly, considering the events in Bax’s beloved Ireland in the 1920s, the first movement is vigorous and ferocious but with a contrasting lyricism. But for me it is the nocturnal-like slow movement, flowing, fluid but introspective that entrances. This is something very personal here and Mark Bebbington is acutely tuned to its sensibilities. Surely this is a love song to Harriet Cohen? It is tender yet passionate, serene yet disturbing. The finale is wilful and headstrong, some material suggesting, to this reviewer, some giant’s tread and some turbulent Celtic legend.

Bax’s In the Night (Passacaglia) again remained unpublished and unperformed in Bax’s lifetime and was only first played by Martin Roscoe in 1986. Harriet thought much of it - “…[It] means such a lot to me – I think I know its very soul”. Bax expert Graham Parlett writes that it is unclear whether the Passacaglia was based on one of Harriet’s musical ideas or possibly on the theme of love, maybe on the opening lines of one of Bax’s poems – ‘Along the quiet streets I walked with her…’ The opening score marking is revealing – “dreamy and tranquil” – before proceeding to the forceful climax and a slow subsidence into silence. A lovely creation that needs to be better-known.

Bax was never comfortable with his appointment as Master of the King’s Music. His music speaks of seascapes and landscapes, legends, myths and dreams – of isolated places rather than pomp and processions and cheering crowds. Thus, it is no surprise that in the first of his Four Pieces, he sets out to parody the kind of music that was more closely associated with Elgar. The ‘Romanza’, the second piece lives up to its title: fragrant, dreamy, fairy light and diaphanous. The third Piece continues this mood to some extent in the ‘Idyll’, yet the frolicking rhythms might suggest a romantic assignation? Finally ‘Phantasie’ returns to Bax’s preoccupation with Celtic legends – here be dark mysterious goings-on in a turbulent atmosphere. Could there be giants about?

Bax’s Legend seems to have been dedicated to the pianist, John Simmons, whose sensitive interpretations of Bax’s music had so impressed the composer. Yet Simmons, apparently, knew nothing of Legend’s existence until several years after the composer’s death when Harriet presented him with the manuscript. There is a heroic quality about the music with a contrasting sweetish cantabile middle section. This section made me think of Delius especially when the latter was in one of his ‘dreaming of what might have been’ moods.

The young Harriet Cohen was a composer as well as a gifted pianist. Her lover, Arnold Bax, was keen to encourage her in this respect although it appears that he could be a very stern critic judging by his remarks about a fledgling Violin Concerto she had attempted.

He did congratulate her on the composition of her Russian Impressions. They are the only examples of her original compositions to appear in print. Of them, Bax commented, “I like them very much”.

‘Sunset on the Volga’ is a finely-observed, complex evocation of rippling bejewelled, waters sparkling under a setting sun. There is an element of folksong too in its fabric. ‘The Exile’ has a touch of melancholy and possibly of homesickness. There is some mild influence of Rachmaninov and I wonder if his exile from his beloved Russia might have had a bearing on this little gem that Bax particularly admired. ‘The Old Church at Wilna’ begins and ends with mournfully tolling bells again recalling Rachmaninov and his ‘obsession’ with church bells. Finally, ‘Tartars’ pays tribute to the Turkic people whose ancestors were renowned horsemen. Harriet’s music begins slowly, but quickly becomes animated (including folkdance-like material) alluding to the Russian oriental music style.

At this point I must recommend Harriet Cohen’s autobiography, A Bundle of Time. It is a very good read and covers her many associations with the leading musicians (and writers such as Arnold Bennett) of her time.

This is an auspicious start to what is to be hoped is a SOMM complete recordings of Bax’s piano music. For me, on this early evidence, Bebbington’s Bax Piano music readings threaten to eclipse those of Ashley Wass on Naxos.

Ian Lace

Previous review: Nick Barnard (Recording of the Month)

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