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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
CD 1 [59:55]
Folk-Tale (1918) [9:20]
Sonata for cello and piano (1923) [34:25]
Sonatina for cello and piano (1933) [16:04]
CD 2 [45:44]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)

Legend-Sonata for cello and piano (1943) [25:53]
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)

Divertimento for solo cello (1955) [12:04]
Elegy for cello and piano (1959) [7:41]
Florence Hooton (cello); Wilfred Parry (piano)
rec. The Music Room, July, September 1958 (Bax); July, November 1958 (Jacob). ADD. Mono. Double CD set
Originally issued on mono LP by Lyrita Recorded Edition: RCS6 (Legend-Sonata and Jacob); RCS7 (other Bax works)
LYRITA REAM.2104 [59:55 + 45:44]

Experience Classicsonline

The first CD opens with Bax’s Folk-Tale for cello and piano. At nearly ten minutes in length, this is more than a miniature. Peter J. Pirie finds it a little difficult to pin down – he suggests that it is "a piece with [a] legendary atmosphere, somewhat Keltic (q.v.), somewhat Nordic in the manner of Sibelius’s En Saga.’ This work was written in 1918 – towards the conclusion of the Great War and at a time when the composer’s ‘innocent’ views on Ireland had taken a considerable knocking. It was the same year that the composer left Elsita Sobrino for Harriet Cohen. This is no bucolic folk-tale – but a tragic and melancholy reflection on Bax’s life and the world he found himself in.

Rob Barnett is correct in identifying the ‘tender almost fragile lyricism’ of this work, however, like the Sonatina this is a deeper and more complex work than the title would suggest. There is sadness about this Folk-Tale that is almost oppressive. Finally, on the score in handwriting that is not Arnold Bax’s is written Conte Populaire. This is surely a totally inappropriate reading of this work!

The Cello Sonata is an amazing work. I guess that I must be careful not to use too many superlatives in the review of this disc; else readers may think I have shares in the company! However I am astounded that there are only two recorded versions of what is, even to the most jaded ear, a masterwork. It must surely count as one of Bax’s most important and characteristic works. As a matter of interest, there are some 59 versions of the (great) Rachmaninov Cello Sonata currently listed on Arkiv.

Peter J. Pirie gives a fine analysis of this work – so I will just highlight a few points. Firstly it is a long work – lasting more than half an hour. And as a result of this it does need a degree of application and engagement by the listener. Yet the time lies easily – for the work is actually not a moment too long. The balance of the part is perfect.

The opening of the Sonata is like a conspectus of Baxian fingerprints –"two bars of arpeggio, like a harp preamble, a group of dissonant chords in hammered rhythm, feroce martellato, a further quiet arpeggio culminating in a soft deep bass chord, and the cello entering dramatically…"

What impresses me most of all, is the work’s sheer lyricism. Bax delivers some of his most beguiling tunes - I think especially of one of the episodes in the final movement. But at every turn there are gorgeous themes. Sometimes they almost seem to topple over one another. This applies especially to the slow movement, the ‘poco lento’, but it is no less apparent in the ‘epilogue’ section of the last movement.

Since first hearing these recordings some 35 years ago I have been especially taken by the Sonatina. So often the use of this word suggests something ephemeral or perhaps designed for neophytes. Yet most listeners would never dream of putting the essays by Ravel and Ireland into this category. And neither should the Bax Sonatina be ignored or deemed as somehow inferior to the masterly and monumental Cello Sonata.

The Sonatina is just over quarter of an hour long, yet manages to encompass a wide range of material and a depth of emotion considerably greater than the scale of the work would suggest. Rob Barnett is right in suggesting that this is a ‘gentle work’ however I believe that there is a depth and a yearning in the slow movement in particular, and the other two movements in general that is much less than gentle. Bax is wearing his heart on his sleeve in more than one passage in this work. Perhaps Pirie is correct in describing the opening movement as being ‘ardent’ and he notes the "fiercely descending first subject…" Yet the heart of this work must be the ‘andante’. This is written as a ‘three part song’ nevertheless the balance of the parts is challenging. The middle section is considerably erratic and quite complex: there is almost a feeling of disintegration. However the opening ‘song’ is finally recovered and is re-presented an octave lower with a more elaborate accompaniment. Of course there is more than a hint of folksong about this movement…

The ‘rondo allegro’ is a charming piece. It more of a set of variations than a formal rondo and manages to sum up much that has gone before in the previous movements. If I was able to rename this work I guess I would call it A Short Sonata rather than risk consigning it to obscurity with the word Sonatina.

Bax’s relatively late Legend-Sonata for cello and piano was written in 1943. I guess that when I first heard this piece I imagined it to be something along the lines of The Tale the Pine Trees Knew – an exploration of some Celtic derring-do. However, this is a relaxed work in comparison to much that Bax wrote in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. The composer may have had his own personal reasons for describing this work as a ‘Legend’ however this piece is totally successful as purely absolute music. Pirie suggests that this work is endued with "a certain rich creative contentment".

The sleeve-notes give a detailed outline of the form and progress of this work that bears study. Interestingly, Pirie compares the first main theme to that of the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto – I am not so sure. Although this first movement has the appurtenances of ‘sonata’ form there is, like so much of Bax’s music a feeling of ‘phantasy’. This is a lovely opening movement that ends quietly. The second movement is a ‘lento espressivo’ which does not really change the mood of what has preceded it. Bax uses, as one of the principal themes, what sounds like a folk-tune that could easily have come from the pen of Jack Moeran. This music pervades the entire movement: the effect is music of heart rending beauty. This is surely one of the loveliest things that Bax ever wrote. However this mood of introspection is cast aside by the ‘rondo.’ This is a tune that is "built up on a flick of semiquavers." It is really a classically constructed rondo that hardly deviates from the textbook. However Bax does introduce some rather interesting and sometimes disturbing music. There is one gorgeous episode that surely harks back to the slow movement. The work ends with "a flick of a diabolical tail".

Surely this is one the composer’s great chamber works and deserves to be better known by all Baxians and English music enthusiasts.

The other two works on this two-CD collection are by the English composer Gordon Jacob. Jacob has been almost wholly sidelined in recent years, although a fair few of his works are now beginning to see the light of day on CD. His Elegy is a deeply sad and moving work. It was written in 1958 in memory of the composer’s father, Stephen, who had died when Jacob was only three years old. Geoff Ogram has pointed out to me, that Richard Itter speaking on Radio 3, about the Lyrita Story, noted that the original Jacob LP (RCS2) with the cello works and Piano Sonata was the first to be issued by that company and that the composer wrote the Elegy especially for the recording to "fill a gap". Jacob dedicated this work to Florence Hooton. The programme notes point out that this is a genuine ‘elegy’ rather than a contrived piece with a ‘perfunctory title’. An elegy can be defined as a poem of mourning, from the Greek 'elegos', or perhaps as a reflection on the death of a loved one or even sorrow generally. In music it is usually seen as being sad and sombre in mood. Jacobs work fits all these criteria.

From the first note to the last the mood of mourning is largely unrelieved. Only very occasionally is there any relief, any suggestion of consolation. Yet the work does end ‘tranquillo’ and perhaps the soul is finally given rest?

Any work for solo cello is bound to be referential to those masterpieces by J.S. Bach and for a later generation to Kodály and Britten. There are relatively few works for this genre - apart from the two mentioned - and one instinctively thinks of William Walton’s Passacaglia and Kodaly’s Sonata for solo cello. So Gordon Jacob’s Divertimento ought to fill a gap in the repertoire. This is a ‘serious divertimento’ especially the heart of the work which is a long improvisation that certainly explores considerable emotional depth. Yet the other three movements are much more in line with the popular idea of the form. The opening ‘prelude’ gets the work off to a flying start. But perhaps the ‘minuet and trio’ comes closest to JSB in spirit – but look out for the pseudo-Spanish guitar effects. Perhaps the work is summed up in the conclusion by the skittish ‘rondino.’ This is perhaps the most ‘modern’ part of the divertimento – where Jacob pushes the boundaries. There are some truly inspiring and interesting ‘noises’ in this movement. The player’s technique is pushed to the limits.

I was brought up on this particular version of the Bax (and the Jacob!). But naturally the vinyl has tended to remain on the shelf over recent years. In fact I guess I had not listened to Florence Hooton and Wilfred Parry playing this work since Bernard Gregor-Smith and Yolande Wrigley issued their fine recording on ASV. However I am delighted that I can have this Lyrita disc back in my ‘active’ collection. Rob Barnett discusses Hooton and her career as a pendant to his excellent review on these pages: suffice to say that in spite of the sound quality being a little lacking, there is a magic about these recordings – especially Bax’s Sonatina and Sonata - that will possibly never be repeated in subsequent performances.

John France


see also review by Rob Barnett





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