BAX: Harp Quintet / Elegiac Trio / Fantasy Sonata (Mobius) (Naxos: 8.554507)
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Arnold Bax was the elder son of a well-off non-conformist family fromsouth London, whose early signs of musical talent were encouraged by asympathetic and over-protective mother. (Similarly encouraged, Bax's brother Cliffordbecame a well-known writer and playwright.) Bax was born in Streatham, and ashe remarked "I cherish a fancy - or delusion - that Streatham in the'eighties was still Surrey... hazily I do recall a certain mellowness andport-windiness about some of the older streets". Yet his mostimpressionable years, in his teens, were spent in Hampstead, where his familymoved in 1896, his father buying an imposing mansion, Ivybank, set in three anda half acres. To all intents and purposes it was a country house existence,Hampstead still being semi-rural.
Bax was a student at the Royal Academy of Music from 1900 to 1905 andthen, having a private income, he was free to develop his musical career as thewhim took him. He was eager to throw off constraining parental influence, andadopted a semi-bohemian lifestyle, travelling widely, including to the Germancity of Dresden and Russia. His favourite destination was the west coast ofIreland, where, as he put it, 'lorded by the Atlantic' and under the influenceof the early poetry of Yeats, he discovered the village of Glencolumcille inDonegal, a place to which, until the First World War, he constantly returned.
Bax imbibed all things Irish, wrote poetry, short stories and Synge-likeplays, using the pseudonym of 'Dermot O'Byrne', and learned Irish Gaelic. Whenin Dublin he moved in literary and nationalist circles, and his friendsincluded the poet and writer Padraic Colum, founder of the Irish Review, andPadraig Pearse, champion of the Irish language who was executed after theEaster Rising in 1916. It was the Easter Rising which was the divide in Bax'slife; the shocking unexpected event that brought him face to face with aharsher reality. There is no doubt that the Elegiac Trio writtenimmediately after Easter 1916 celebrated a world that was lost, but in a sensethe later works with harp - the harp being, perhaps, a symbol of Ireland - hadthis function too.
The earliest work in the present programme is the Elegiac Trio, whichBax wrote for the same combination as Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Violaand Harp, and at about the same time. The first performance was atLondon's Aeolian Hall on 26th March 1917, when the performers were thecelebrated flautist Albert Fransella, the composer Waldo Warner on viola, and theharpist Miriam Timothy. The Debussy sonata was actually written six monthsbefore Bax's score, but it is difficult to see how Bax could have beeninfluenced by it, despite textural similarities, for the Debussy was firstheard six months after Bax completed his score and was not given a publicperformance in London until six weeks before the first performance of Bax'strio, when the performers were the same artists.
For a memorial piece written so soon after the event, Bax does notindulge in histrionics; he does not stamp and rage; and while the music isimbued with Bax's stunned reaction to the news from Ireland, he gives us noclue to its non-musical imagery, not even a dedication. His first audiencespresumably related it to the war in France, certainly Bax made no mention ofIreland. Yet, here Bax dreams of the distant past and presents a bardic song to'Cathleen ni Hoolihan'.
Bax made his reputation as the composer of elaborate impressionisticorchestral scores, including seven highly individual symphonies, orchestraltone poems, concertos, choral music, but also much chamber music, piano musicand songs. After the First World War Bax emerged as a major figure as thesescores began to be heard in quick succession. Several were informed by Bax's ongoingreaction to events in Ireland (and, indeed, a poetry pamphlet, A DublinBallad and other poems, printed under Bax's pseudonym, had been banned bythe censor in Ireland in 1918).
After the Elegiac Trio, Bax had written an In Memoriam, this time scoring it for cor anglais, harp and string quartet, and hefollowed it with the Harp Quintet which was written in 1919, probably atmuch the same time that he made his first visit to Ireland after the War. Againin a single movement, the sound of the harp is important in creating themusic's character and impact. Here again the overall mood is sorrowful.
However, the boldly, even dramatically, lyrical opening by the string quartet(the harp only accompanying and adding occasional touches of colour) sets themood, but with the arrival of the sustained second subject the harp is nowboldly accompanying. Bax seems to be telling au unwritten story, with spectralinterludes and a dramatic faster episode with dissonant string accompaniment.
Inevitably none of them last; the harpist muses again and again on some privategrief. Towards the end Bax writes sonorously for the strings, the bold harpaccompaniment suggesting some bardic recounting of legends of long ago.
Eventually the music fades in a long-drawn twilight evocation. Here Bax's firstharpist was Gwendolen Mason, a well-known British player of the period.
Eight years passedbefore Bax wrote the next work on the current programme. In the mid-1920s a newmusical influence entered Bax's life, when another harpist, Maria Korchinska,became active on the London concert platform, encouraging him to write morevirtuosically for the instrument. The first musical outcome of this was Bax'sfour movement Fantasy Sonata, which is dated April 1927 and was firstperformed at a concert of his chamber music at the Grotrian Hall on 10th Junethat year. Bax takes the harp and viola and treats them as the perfect romanticmedium, writing for the two with great resource, always alert for an originalinstrumental timbre. Although the music plays continuously (with a brief breakbetween the third and fourth movements) this is, unusually for Bax, in fourmovements. First comes an energetic Allegro molto, and the listenershould particularly note the opening viola theme; other ideas develop from itand it signals the progress from movement to movement, and reappears at theend. Towards the end of the first movement a cadenza leads into the dancing Allegromoderato. If this is a scherzo it is a thistledown impression, soon leadinginto tender, light and poetical passages. The slow movement follows, an elegiacLento espressivo, a rhapsodic and passionate song for the viola. In thefinal Allegro the main theme returns and the work ends brilliantly.
Soon afterwards Bax was commissioned to produce a sonata (at firstcalled 'Sonatina') for flute and harp for Korchinska to play with her husband,Count Benckendorff - the son of the last Czarist ambassador to London - inApril 1928, but it did not achieve a wider audience as it remained the propertyof the Benckendorffs and was not published. As a result the music was littleknown, and when Bax later re-scored the music as his Concerto for SevenInstruments - in fact a septet - no-one noticed that it was an arrangement.
The music is in Bax's more customary three movements. Both themes of the firstmovement, an Allegro moderato, have a folk-like feel to them, the secondappearing to borrow a phrase from the folk-tune 'Down by the Sally Gardens',but the overall effect is high-spirited and outgoing. The second movement, Cavatina,is marked Lento, and is in marked contrast, surely Bax thinking backto the events of a dozen years before. Here the chromatic flute line andwistful overall m