Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Nympholept - poem for piano (1912) [14:09]
Sonata in B flat 'Salzburg' (1937?) [22:44]
Two Hungarian Dances (from Clavierstücke) (1897-98) [5:14]
Sonata in D minor (1900) [7:47]
The Happy Forest (1914) [9:04]
Natalia Williams-Wandoch (piano)
rec. 2018, St. John the Evangelist Church, Oxford, UK
Première commercial recordings - except for the 2nd movement of the 'Salzburg' Sonata
USK RECORDINGS USK1236CD [59:00]
I am not sure how this remarkable recording passed me by last year. I regard myself as a Bax enthusiast, but not a fanatic. Ever since hearing his orchestral tone poem The Tale the Pine Trees Knew released on the old Revolution record label, I have followed the progress of Bax’s discography with considerable interest and expense. This present CD fills in some interesting gaps in the composer’s catalogue. The programme features four pieces for solo piano, as well as the pianistic first thoughts of two works that would later become established in his orchestral repertoire.
The disc opens with the original piano version of Nympholept. This was composed in 1912, taking its title from the eponymous poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne. The entire mood of this piece owes much to the dreamy, enchanting landscape that influenced Debussy and his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. The title suggests that the poet suffered from ‘nympholepsy’ which is a state of bliss or euphoria induced by the forest nymphs. This is a splendid piece of pianistic impressionism that weaves its magical spell in every bar. Despite the seemingly rhapsodic nature of this music, it is constructed in a straightforward ternary (three part) form. The opening section explores two contrasting themes, with a calmer middle section signed in the score as ‘Elfin and soul-less.’ This builds to a climax, before the mood of the first section returns. The piece ends with ‘unwinding phrases’ and then ‘everything dissolves like a dream.’ Nympholept, in its piano version, was dedicated to Tobias Matthay, who at that time was Bax’s piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music. All the ‘pagan’ enchantment of this piece is well realised here. Natalia Williams-Wandoch has created a perfectly captivating performance of this bewitching score. Most Baxians will know the orchestral version of this work completed in 1915 and dedicated to Constant Lambert. Several of the piano passages were reworked for this recording.
Ever since Eric Parkin recorded the slow movement of Bax’s Sonata in B flat (Salzburg) on CHAN 9561 (1997), I have been intrigued to hear what the rest of it sounded like. This is a late work, written around 1937. According to Graham Parlett, the manuscript carries the soubriquet ‘Author Unknown’, suggesting that this lovely piece could have been a ‘discovery’ made by the composer in some dusty library and subsequently edited by him. Not true. Bax confided to his friend Alan Richardson one day - on a bus! - that it was pastiche; add to that the fact that the slow movement contains a quotation from the Violin Concerto which was being worked on in 1937. It is not known why Bax chose to compose this piece in 18th century style. It may have been a personal challenge, or quite simply a respite from orchestrating the London Pageant. Whatever the circumstances, this is a thoroughly enjoyable performance. It is a ‘real’ Mozart/Haydn sonata. As Nick Barnard has said in these pages, there is no way that an ‘Innocent Ear’ would ever have guessed that it was composed by the mature Arnold Bax.
Graham Parlett’s essential Catalogue of the Works of Arnold Bax (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1999) includes reference to a series of pieces entitled Clavierstücke. These include two Mazurkas, a Nocturne, two Scherzi, a Sonata in D minor and four Hungarian Dances. The ‘album’ was assembled between 1897 and 1898, when the composer would be 14 years old. It was probably part of a portfolio presented to Sir Frederick Bridge. This was at the time when Bax’s father was considering a musical career for his son. Natalia Williams-Wandoch has chosen Two Hungarian Dances, No.1 ‘Ra’s Dance’ and No.2 ‘On the Mountains’, for inclusion in her recital. It is probably fair to say that these are quite definitely ‘Juvenilia.’ On the other hand, there is a freshness and vivacity about them that is surprising. It is not hard to imagine Edvard Grieg as an exemplar here. I am not sure what the other pieces in this collection sound like, nor what their musical worth is. That said, there certainly would have been room on this CD for a few more extracts from the Clavierstücke manuscript.
It seems that Piano Sonatas in D minor were a speciality of the young Arnold Bax. The earliest mentioned in the Parlett Catalogue was included in the above mentioned Clavierstücke. There is also a later example which has disappeared without trace. The first movement of this lost piece was performed by Myra Hess at the Aeolian Hall on 2 June 1911 during a concert hosted by the Fourth Congress of the International Musical Society. At present, there is no further notice of this Sonata, save the concert programme. Then there is the present Sonata in D minor. This was probably written in 1900, although the manuscript is undated. It would appear to have been composed when Bax was studying at the Royal Academy of Music. The piece is a single movement with no indication as to whether there were other movements. Parlett points out that it has no ‘thematic relationship with the early example in the Clavierstücke collection’. The mood of this music tends towards the composer’s then interest in Wagner and Tchaikovsky rather than his later enthusiasms for Debussy and the ‘Celtic Twilight.’ Yet again, there are some nods to Johannes Brahms in these pages. I found this romantic piece extremely satisfying and surprisingly mature for a seventeen-year-old student. It is a great discovery. Natalia Williams-Wandoch has added expression marks and dynamics to this unfinished score, as well as adding a few missing notes in the recapitulation.
The final piece on this rewarding CD is The Happy Forest. This was composed for piano in 1914 and was based on a prose poem by Herbert Farjeon of the same title. The poet recounts a typical day spent in the forest. However, this is not only a ‘happy’ place, but also a ‘magical’ one. The music loosely follows the poet in his description of the ‘trembling delight’ of dawn awakening, through the love songs of the shepherd poets to the dance processions led by a satyr as dusk approaches. The mood created is a bit like Wind in the Willows meets Theocritus’s Idylls or the Forest of Arden moved to the Arcadian Hills. Despite the colourful nature of the score, the piece is written as a relatively straight forward ‘scherzo and trio.’ The orchestral version of this piece was made in 1923.
Bax has gained a highly competent and enthusiastic interpreter in the pianist Natalia Williams-Wandoch. She has provided rewarding and exciting accounts of all this music. The liner notes are written by the soloist and provide a respectable introduction to each piece. The sound quality is ideal. Looking at Williams-Wandoch’s webpage, I see that this is her debut recording. I sincerely hope that she can revisit Arnold Bax’s piano music as soon as possible.
Previous review: Nick Barnard