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Arnold BAX (1883 -1953)
The Piano Music

CD 1
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp Minor (1910: rev. 1917-1921) * [18:43]
Concert Waltz in E-flat (1910) ***** [6:52]
Two Russian Tone Pictures (1912) ****Nocturne: May Night in the Ukraine [7:30] National Dance: Gopak [5:33]
Toccata (1913) ***** [6:02]
The Princess's Rose Garden (1915) ***** [7:36]
In a Vodka Shop (1915)*** [3:44]
The Maiden with the Daffodil (1915) *** [4:16]
Apple-Blossom- Time (1915) ***** [3:44]
Sleepy-Head (1915) **** [5:00]
A Mountain Mood (1915) ***** [5:16]
CD 2
Winter Waters (1915) *** [6:38]
Dream in Exile (Intermezzo) (1916) ** [8:31]
Nereid (1916) ***** [4:05]
On a May Evening (1918) ***** [6:55]
A Romance (1918) **** [5:25]
Whirligig (1919) ***** [3:32]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in G (1919: rev. 1920) ** [24:07]
The Slave Girl (1919) ***** [4:30]
What the Minstrel Told Us (Ballad) (1919) ** [9:44]
CD 3
Ceremonial Dance (1920) * [3:36]
Serpent Dance (1920) * [3:33]
Water Music (1920) * [5:12]
Lullaby (1920) *** [3:51]
Burlesque (1920) **** [3:10]
Country-Tune (1920) * [2:13]
A Hill-Tune (1920) * [4:11]
Mediterranean (1920) * [3:19]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in G-sharp Minor (1926) *** [25:00]
Paean (Passacaglia)** (1928) [3:18]
Piano Sonata No. 4 in G (1932) **** [16:34]
O Dame get up and bake your Pies (1945) *** [2:47]
Iris Loveridge (piano)
* January & May 1959; **November 1959 & January 1960; ***July 1960; ****January 1961 & October 1962; *****September 1963. mono ADD
LYRITA REAM 3113 [3:44:55]

Experience Classicsonline

I scratched my head a little as to how to review this CD. Firstly, the sheer number of pieces on this release prohibits a detailed analysis of, or even a paragraph comment on, each work. I guess that if I discussed the thirty odd pieces it would become a dissertation: I imagine that few people would read through to the end. Secondly the complexity of a full comparison of the Lyrita edition of piano music of Arnold Bax with those issued by Naxos and Chandos would also seem to be over-ambitious.

I will admit a bias towards Iris Loveridge. It is not that I do not have the Eric Parkin, Michael Endres and Ashley Wass editions in my collection at home – of course I do! It is simply that like most English music enthusiasts of my generation, dear old Iris was all I had to make my evaluation of Bax’s piano works. I know that a few ‘orphan’ recordings by Harriet Cohen and others may have been doing the rounds in the ’sixties and ’seventies, but from my perspective, Lyrita was the only way to get to grips with what is a vital contribution to an understanding of an important part of Bax’s output.

I remember buying my copies of the Lyrita vinyl from a shop called ‘Symphony One’ in Glasgow and also from Banks Music in York. I borrowed a copy of the music of the Piano Sonatas from a friend who was studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and sat down to make acquaintance with these works. Later another friend lent me the sheet music for a number of the smaller works. It was an educative experience and gave me an enthusiasm for Bax’s piano music that survives to this day.

However, it was not until more than fifteen years later, when the Eric Parkin edition was released, that I was able finally to get my head round these pieces. The CDs made it so much easier to listen to music ‘on the move’. And recently I had the opportunity to review Ashley Wass’s fine reading of the First and Second Sonatas. This proved to me two things – firstly that it is absolutely essential to have new recordings of Bax’s piano music and secondly that a new edition certainly does not necessarily supersede older ones.

Bax’s style of piano writing was a little bit anachronistic for his time. Many composers of the era were influenced by the bittersweet music of John Ireland but this was not the route that Bax took. When other composers were busy discovering English folk-song, atonalism and were nodding to past masters as neo-classicists, Bax was writing in a pianistic style that owed more to Chopin and Liszt than Schoenberg or Bartók. The influences of Wagner and Sibelius are omnipresent, although perhaps more so in the orchestral works. Then there was his fascination with the Celtic Fringe: he does not actually quote Irish or Gaelic folk-tunes but the music exudes the misty atmosphere of those remote and imaginative regions - more the spirit than the letter. Finally, much of the inspiration for Bax’s music came from the pianists, often ladies, who were to play the pieces - especially Harriet Cohen and Myra Hess.

Strangely, although Bax wrote a great deal for the piano it was only for a relatively small part of his career. Most of the works on this present CD were composed between 1910 and 1921. The Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas were written later. In addition to the solo piano music Bax also wrote a few concertante works, including the fine Symphonic Variations and the Winter Legends. There is also an impressive corpus of music for two pianos.

The solution to my quandary over how to review this CD is this: I want to pick out a few pieces from this edition that are perhaps a little less well known – even to Bax enthusiasts. These are not necessarily the highlights of this CD or of Bax’s piano music. They are simply five or six pieces that caught my eye, as it were, as I reviewed this 3 CD boxed set.

The Concert Waltz in Eb was composed in 1910 and is Bax’s first published piano work. It was dedicated to Myra Hess and was given its first performance in the same year. It is certainly not ‘typical’ Bax music – owing much to ‘romantic’ models. Yet it is extremely effective and avoids descent into pure salon music by the sophistication of its harmony and variety of expression. This is a lovely piece and is welcome as part of collection.

Winter Waters is an interesting piece: the sleeve notes rightly point out that there is a sea change in his music: it is suggested that this is “almost the quintessential” Bax piano piece. It is subtitled ‘A Tragic Landscape’ and as such describes a dark and bleak picture of the ocean or perhaps a sea-loch. Colin Scott-Sutherland suggests that this piece has the ‘dark menacing inscrutability of the sea.’ To me it one of the most impressive pieces in the Bax catalogue. It is certainly one that comes to mind when I watch the sea pounding against the rocks of the Cornish coast on a cold and stormy winter’s day. The pianist creates just the right atmosphere in her interpretation.

In 1929 Bax published three short piano pieces based on music from the ballet score The Truth about the Russian Dancers. The titles of these three pieces, The Ceremonial Dance, the Serpent Dance and Water Music bear no relation to the plot of the original ballet score. The Ceremonial Dance was part of the original work’s overture and is designed as a gentle pastiche of Russian ballet – complete with a ‘spoof' Russian tune. The programme notes quote Peter Pirie as describing the Serpent Dance as being "a half humorous piece of oriental tushery complete with wailing pipe and swaying snake." In fact, the music was originally used at the end of the ballet when the apparently dead ballerina rises from her couch at the Maestro’s bidding. The Water Music is a gorgeous number. Originally used in the score of Tamara, this was recycled as the Dance of Motherhood in The Truth and finally acquired its watery title in 1929. It is a simple tune that has a much more complex accompaniment. All three works do not quite fit the stereotype of what we imagine Bax’s piano music to sound like – yet they are interesting and satisfying.

The latest piece on this CD collection is O Dame Get up and Bake your Pies (Variations on a North Country Christmas Carol). This was composed as a gift for Anna and Julian Herbage. Apparently, Anna had baked some apple pies on Christmas Morning: they were Bax’s neighbours at Storrington in Sussex. What is important about this piece is the fact that most critics regarded Bax’s composing career to be virtually over: the inspiration had run dry, so it was believed. Yet this piece is near perfect: it is a ‘late-flowering’ of wit, melody and invention. It deserves to be a part of the corpus of the composer’s piano music. It was given its first performance a few weeks later, by Harriet Cohen on 28 February 1945. Loveridge plays this piece with both humour and panache.

Finally I want to look at one of the Sonatas. The First Sonata in F# major was composed in the Ukraine. Bax, always a man for the ladies, had set off in pursuit of a girl called Natalia Skarginska. Apparently she had spurned his advances. Bax, in his autobiography explains how she eventually remarried and died tragically of typhoid. Certainly this Sonata in one large sonata-allegro movement and surely owes much to Franz Liszt. However there is certainly a considerable influence from Russian models – similar to the Two Russian Tone Pictures and the In a Vodka Shop. The entire Sonata appears to be made up of a series of constantly changes moods and tempos: the composer takes fragments of themes and seems to throw them around the score. Much of the writing could be described as vague, in a deliberate sense, with the appearance of formlessness. Yet the reality is more prosaic – this is a well-constructed and disciplined work.

There is little here that suggests tenderness or repose and any such moment is short lived. There is a lyrical theme that is marked ‘sosprando – which means ‘sighing,’ however, the predominant mood of this music is passionate and sometimes even aggressive and violent. Lewis Foreman has remarked that this is not a ‘picture post-card’ view of Russia. It is fair to say that this Sonata reveals all the angst and anger of a young man seemingly being cheated of his love. On the other hand, in the coda the bells of St. Petersburg ring out in seemingly positive mood.

I re-listened to Ashey Wass playing this Sonata for my review. And I thoroughly enjoyed that version. Yet there is something moving about Iris Loveridge's playing that is almost indescribable. She manages a huge technique for the ‘bells’ sequence that is truly impressive. For my ear she better explores the tensions that seem to haunt Bax’s mind. Parkin has been accused of taking a more leisurely approach to this Sonata and I guess that I concur with that. Endres is considered to have made a powerful reading to this work. Yet when all is said and done, I have a sneaking preference for Loveridge.

This is not a complete edition of Bax’s piano music – I guess that has still to be achieved. Whether we would wish to hear the juvenilia, such as the March Trionfale written in 1900 or the Sonata in D minor from the same year is a matter of debate. Personally I am a completist, a kind of musical trainspotter. I feel that at least one recording ought to be available! However, there are a few later pieces missing from this collection that may be worth including in subsequent editions of the composer’s piano music. These include Scherzo 1913; In the Night 1914; Pæan (Passacaglia) 1928; Legend 1935; Suite on the Name Gabriel Fauré 1945 Four Pieces for piano 1947 and the very late Two Lyrical Pieces for piano 1948.

Lastly, there is an issue over the sound quality. Even the most enthusiastic supporter of the Loveridge edition would have to admit that the old mono tapes do not have the depth of the more recent ones. Yet this is no reason to underrate these CDs. They have been beautifully restored and little of musical value is lost in spite of the fact this is a pre-digital recording.

I would heartily recommend this set. I accept that there are three very good alternatives available for the majority of pieces recorded here. Yet the bottom line is that Baxians will want all obtainable versions for their collections. It is good to be able to contrast and compare the Sonatas and lesser pieces. I guess that every listener would have a different opinion on playing style, timings, sound quality and interpretation. However, paraphrasing my late father, no-one deliberately issues a bad recording of Bax’s piano music. Often it is a mater of taste. However, this present Lyrita recording is a superb opportunity to purchase virtually all the solo piano pieces by Sir Arnold Bax. Moreover, they are played with technical brilliance, interpretive skill and have the ability to move the spirit and inspire the mind.

John France





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