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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]
As part of my research while reviewing recently the excellent disc of Mark Bebbington on SOMM playing Bax and Harriet Cohen, I saw a reference to a CD released by the Usk label of Natalia Williams-Wandoch playing rare Bax. Currently via the usual 'big' online suppliers this appears to be available in download format only - with the usual issues of low bit-rates - but at a reasonable £7.99. The good news is the CD itself can be bought direct from Williams-Wandoch's own website for £12.50 with free p&p (within the UK I assume) - other online sources via Usk's own site are significantly more expensive delivered. This is not a disc I was sent to review but one that demands to be heard.
For admirers of Bax's music in general and also British 20th Century piano music this is a very exciting disc indeed. None of the music here - with the exception of the slow movement of the 'Salzburg' Sonata - has been commercially recorded before. While some of it must be classed as juvenilia and of more academic than musical interest, the inclusion of the original piano versions of the tone poems Nympholept and The Happy Forest are major additions to the Bax piano discography and the 'mature' 'Salzburg' Sonata complete is a real curio.
This is Natalia Williams-Wandoch's début CD and as such it deserves to be applauded and widely disseminated. She has the full technical resource to play Bax's challenging scores and her empathy and enthusiasm for the music shines through not only her playing but also the liner note she contributes. The recording is full and clear, powerful and detailed. All of which makes this a compulsory purchase for anyone interested in Bax at the keyboard. The recital opens with the 1912 Nympholept. This work lies on the cusp of Bax's mature great orchestral tone poems - a fact which explains why in its orchestral form it has received several recordings from Thomson and Handley on Chandos and Lloyd-Jones on Naxos - although both piano and orchestral versions did not receive professional performances until the 1980's. Thomson is sensually languorous and a full three minutes longer than this piano version - the other two performances still slower than Williams-Wandoch but more closely aligned. Bax did not orchestrate the work for three years after the original composition although he did obviously use the original piano version as a short-score [according to Graham Parlett in his definitive catalogue of Bax's works]. From the opening bars Williams-Wandoch captures the ecstatic impressionistic mood of the music beautifully with the ebb and flow of the rhythms intuitively effective. Williams-Wandoch does not try to generate the sheer keyboard power of Bebbington but in fact this suits this piece - and The Happy Forest especially - very well. There is a playful skittishness that in some ways is more effective and coherent on the keyboard than the full orchestra. Certainly it is hard to understand why this music had to wait so long to be heard and why Bax did not choose to bring this score forward for publication and performance in his own lifetime in either format. Few would say it is the greatest of his works but wholly recognisable and well worth hearing.
Possibly the neglect of the complete Salzburg Sonata is more comprehensible. This is a late (1937?) work and - as Williams-Wandoch says in her liner - was written as a pastiche by Bax presumably for his own pleasure rather than in any expectation of wider acclaim. This is a full four movement Sonata which runs to over twenty minutes. I guarantee that no innocent ear would ever guess the composer. This is not even pastiche in the sense of say Prokofiev's Classical Symphony where music of an earlier age is refracted through another century's lens. This really is simply a pastiche of an 18th century/Mozartian piano sonata. The most interesting/original music by some distance is contained in the second movement Lento espressivo which explains its inclusion by both Bebbington and Parkin in their respective surveys. The outer movements particularly are musically pretty simple and attractive and Williams-Wandoch plays them with the requisite clarity and light touch. In the second movement Williams-Wandoch does have to cede to Bebbington who displays a more expressive and lyrically free natural musical phrasing. Williams-Wandoch is still very good but perhaps a trifle 'straight'. That said the low bit-rate/download-only-bonus status of the SOMM recording shows up the lower sonic quality of that track - the remainder of the SOMM disc sounds superb. As a Bax completist I am genuinely delighted to have heard this piece in full but I cannot imagine it being listened to very often even in as sympathetic a performance as this.
There follow the two juvenalia; Two Hungarian Dances are taken from a set of works collectively called Clavierstücke by A.E.T. Bax 1897-8. Parlett suggests that these were all pre-existing works recopied by Bax into a presentation album to show to Sir Frederick Bridge at the time his father was considering allowing him to pursue a career in music. For most Bax admirers these will be the earliest complete works to be heard. As such they are fascinating; simple in texture and content with more of the salon rather than Hungary about them. The second dance titled On the Mountains is distinctly more individual perhaps with a hint of Grieg's Lyric Pieces. Parlett lists another Minuetto, 3 Mazurkas, 2 Scherzi, Prelude, Nocturne, a Sonate in D [unrelated to the following work] as completing this sampler book. Clearly I have no way to judge the relative quality of the other pieces but perhaps it would have been good to use some of the 'space' left on this disc to offer other samples of the young Bax.
At the age of fourteen Bax was no Korngoldian let alone Mozartian prodigy but clearly there is considerable talent there. How this would develop is shown by the Sonata in D minor from just two years later when Bax had started his studies at the Royal Academy of Music. Although just the first movement exists, this is Bax beginning to flex his full-blown Romantic muscles. Still little, indeed none, of the mature composer's voice but the aspiration is far greater and the musical gestures grander. In Parlett's listing the previous work is a Funeral March for piano in memory of Tchaikovsky and I did wonder if the shade of the recently deceased composer also cast its shadow on this work. Worth remembering that Bax's first great musical infatuation - before the nominal "Celtic Twilight" phase - was with the Russian Romantics. Again no innocent ear would recognise this as by Bax but it is a piece that is worth hearing and enjoying more than once. Again worth noting how impressively Williams-Wandoch inhabits the spirit and note of the music.
The disc is completed by the a fascinating early/original version of The Happy Forest. This work is only known in its orchestral version which dates from a full nine years after the piano original. So the 1914 piece pre-dates all of Bax's best-known orchestral works and I must admit knowing it from the 1923 orchestral version. I had always assumed it was part of that mature out-pouring of great works from Garden of Fand in 1916 on. Yet here we have proof of Bax's fully-formed style musically and expressively from well before. This is probably Williams-Wandoch's finest performance on a fine disc. She again is totally inside the elusive spirit of this music - it is rapturous, energetic, visionary and buoyant in turn.
So a very warm welcome indeed for a very auspicious début disc with superb musicianship and pianism very much to the fore. The recording itself is unfussily good and the music of exceptional interest to someone like myself. Hopefully Ms Williams-Wandoch will be encouraged/commissioned to explore this repertoire further. Delving into Parlett's catalogue there do not appear to be many complete piano works - late or other - to be recorded although, for example, I would like to hear the arrangement of the Symphony No.4 [not by Bax] and other similar pieces. Is the original version of the Piano Sonata No.1 radically different from the familiar work I wonder? Certainly the remaining Clavierstücke and other student works would be fascinating to hear. An excellent debut recital.
Nick Barnard Afterthought
A quick word of acknowledgment and praise for the publishers Fand Music Press. For many years Bax was published - almost exclusively - by initially Murdoch and then latterly Chappells. Unfortunately, not long after Bax's death the main Chappells warehouse burnt down and at a stroke the vast bulk of the stock of Bax's scores vanished. This coincided with the downturn in his popularity after his death and as a result for many years it was all but impossible to buy new copies of just about any of his works. Fortunately, Studio Music Company took over the Chappells catalogue and as part of the 1983 Centenary republished pretty much all of the pre-existing Bax catalogue which is still available. However, this took no account of the many works that remained unpublished which have languished in libraries and collections unavailable to performers and by extension audiences.
Here is where Fand Music Press step in. They have prepared beautiful new printed editions of several of Bax's previously unpublished works. This includes the Symphony/Sonata, the 4 Pieces, In the Night and Legend recorded by Bebbington and the Nympholept, The Happy Forest and 'Salzburg' Sonata included here. So in every respect both discs exist because of the efforts and dedication of Fand Music. Too often the significance of the actual publisher gets lost while considering the performer, the music or indeed the recording itself. The Fand Music Press catalogue still contains a 1913 Scherzo (known to collectors through the Handley/Chandos/RPO recording as the Symphonic Scherzo) as well as two other orchestral works arranged by John Mitchell; Pensive Twilight and Dance in the Sun so hopefully one of these fine pianists will include them in a future recording.