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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
The English Music Society Recordings
Viola Sonata (1922) [27:31]
Nonett (1930) [15:12]
Mater Ora Filium (1921) [10:22]
William Primrose (viola); Harriet Cohen (piano); The Griller Quartet (Sidney Griller (violin); Jack O'Brien (violin); Philip Burton (viola); Colin Hampton (cello)); Victor Watson (double bass); Joseph Slater (flute); Frederick Thurston (clarinet); Leon Goossens (oboe); Maria Korchinska (harp); BBC Chorus/Leslie Woodgate
rec. 22 July 1937 (CAX 8047-53); 1 February 1937 CAX 7922-25; 2 December 1938 CAX 8402-04)
All transfers from US Columbia Masterworks 78rpm set M-386
PRISTINE PACM081 [53:05]

It is good to have these electric process recordings all in one place even if the resulting playing time is less than ideal. Their diversity is unified by their being products of the English Music Society - and Pristine hold many of the Society’s other recordings. That they were recorded in the space of two years almost at the end of a trajectory of two decades in which Bax wrote all seven of his numbered symphonies is also to be noted. In 1937-38 only the Seventh and final symphony - written for the New York World Fair - lay in the future. This was when Bax’s fame stood at its very peak. It also represented the composer heard with a new clarity not afforded by his earlier acoustic process 78s.
 
What we hear is the choral and chamber Bax - a composer now more renowned for his orchestral works. The Nonet takes us closest to that world. The chamber works do at least remove the by no means justified criticism of overly dense orchestration.
 
The Tertis-dedicated Viola Sonata has the same mien as the first two symphonies: dark in the manner of the cavernous depths of Winter Legends or of the oily threatening waters of Northern Ballad No. 2. Cohen, the dedicatee of Winter Legends, is an attentive and commanding participant. The balance struck by the 1930s engineers is pretty good, being only a shade preferential to the viola. Background ‘burble’ is ubiquitous although the mind soon ‘filters’ it out. At least the treble feels uncompromised. That penetrating upper voice has not been blunted. This remains a most atmospheric work: ruthless and goblin predatory and mediating honeyed light with tense dark shadows. The piece ends tenderly - one senses the lovers in each others arms. The two musicians achieve a very moving and wondrous concentration. Remarkable.
 
The Nonet has a more prominently bristly surface noise. Its instinctive progress is rhapsodically blown hither and thither. The music has Ravelian moments with an ecstatic tenderness - a mood of which Bax was an expressive master. This is an oxygen-rich piece, full of breezes and gales. The second movement is gripped with a more imperative energy but it’s playful too. We are treated to a rapidly changing kaleidoscope of emotions.
 
For Mater Ora Filium the brushy surface noise is the most self-effacing of all three recordings. As to the performance one is conscious of studied enunciation of words but not to the extent that it is mannered. The passion that lights a flame under the words defies the antiquarian preciousness of the model (Byrd’s motets). This piece is the most demanding of the technology and it emerges wonderfully.
 
While the Nonet and Sonata have appeared on CD before (Dutton (Nonet) and Pearl, Doremi, Biddulph (Sonata)) this is the debut for the BBC Mater. If you have a taste for the historical Bax then do not miss out on Symposium 1336 which also includes the 1925 Leeds Mater Ora Filium.
 
These transfers were made from quiet US Columbia pressings generously donated to Pristine by Mr. Albert Schlachtmeyer.
 
For determined Baxians who will find much here to reward their outlay.
 
Rob Barnett 

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