BAX: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / Dream in Exile / Nereid (Ashley Wass/ Michael Ponder) (Naxos: 8.557439)
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Piano Works 1
Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 Dream in Exile Nereid
Arnold Bax was one of a group of talented youngpianist-composers who emerged from London's RoyalAcademy of Music in the years immediately after1900. They included York Bowen, Benjamin Dale andPaul Corder, all pupils of Tobias Matthay for piano andFrederick Corder for composition. At much the sametime the pianists Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer, and a littlelater Harriet Cohen were all Matthay pupils, and ofcourse they played Bax's music. While Bax took manyyears to make a career, his contemporary York Bowenwas an immediate hit both as pianist and composer andappeared at Queen's Hall in his own music while still astudent. Yet Bowen's orchestral music is now largelyforgotten while Bax is widely known.
Bax wrote in almost all conventional formsexcluding opera (though he unsuccessfully attemptedopera more than once). With seven symphonies,concertos, many orchestral works including thefamiliar tone poem Tintagel, choral music, manychamber works, songs and piano music his wouldeventually be a large output and between the wars atleast he was certainly seen as a major figure, a staturerewarded by a knighthood in the Coronation HonoursList in 1937. Against his better judgement he becamethe Master of the King's Musick in 1942 after the deathof Walford Davies.
Bax's early life was dominated by the keyboardand in his twenties he appeared in concerts playing hisown music. Though not a regular concert pianist suchwas his pianism that he tended to be called on whenothers failed. Thus in February 1909 he accompaniedDebussy songs in the composer's presence, and inJanuary 1914 did the same for Schoenberg's songswhen the booked pianist withdrew at the last minute.
But after the First World War he played in publicincreasingly rarely, although he did make tworecordings, of Delius's First Violin Sonata and his ownViola Sonata in May and June 1929. The fire in Bax'sromantic pianism is evident in both, with his generousphrasing and left hand articulation, and while Delius isreported as finding Bax's playing too forceful for hismusic, we might feel it gives it some fibre.
Bax's solo piano music consists of four big-bonedsonatas written between 1910 and 1934, and a coupleof dozen highly characteristic shorter pieces many ofthem technically in the shadow of Debussy or Scriabin.
There was also the original version, a sonata, of whatin 1922 became his First Symphony, and a dozen or soalternative versions of orchestral works, and short latepiano pieces unpublished in his lifetime.
The shorter piano pieces were mainly writtenbetween 1915 and 1920 and include impressionisticminiatures such as The Princess's Rose Garden, Apple-Blossom Time and A Romance. Bax's well-knownliaison with the pianist Harriet Cohen started in 1915and many of his short piano pieces were dedicated toher. Indeed this resulted in rivalry between Harriet('Tanya' to her circle) and Myra Hess in the playing ofBax's piano music. Yet Harriet Cohen had small handsand this later caused her to avoid the heavier demandsof concertos by Brahms and Rachmaninov. Curiously,Bax's writing, particularly in his works for piano andorchestra, are seemingly oblivious of her problems,Bax not limiting his expression by his champion'sdifficulties.
Much of Bax's early music must have arisen fromimprovisation at the piano, an approach that led him toinvent harmony which, used in a colouristic way, mustthen have sounded startlingly modern. His inspirationwas the new piano music of the Russians, especiallyScriabin, and his habit, in the days before recording orbroadcasting, of playing recent orchestral scores at thepiano, often as a duet with his friend the pianist ArthurAlexander, was a powerful influence. They playedthrough Glazunov's symphonies in this way, indulgingin all manner of pianistic 'in jokes' with each other -friends said they should go on the halls as 'Bax andFrontz'. Bax's preoccupation with the piano led him towrite many songs whose headlong accompaniments,complex and virtuosic, tell us a lot about Bax thepianist in his early twenties.
Bax's early years were closely associated withIreland where he spent much time in the far westaborbing both the musical and literary atmosphere.
Here he developed his literary alter ego DermotO'Byrne, publishing poetry, short stories and plays.
The Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, though viewed byBax from England, came as a personal blow and isreflected in various scores of the time. Bax's shorterpieces were not all sunlit idylls, and in such darkerscores as the piano pieces Winter Waters and What theMinstrel Told Us it seems probable that there may besome programmatic elements from this time. This is asensibility reflected in our programme in Dream inExile and the Second Sonata.
Bax's romantic First Piano Sonata in F sharpminor was written in the Ukraine in the early summerof 1910 during a romantic adventure which hedescribes in his autobiography. In a turbulent Lisztiansingle movement it was first played by Myra Hess asRomantic Tone-Poem in April 1911, and then variedand extended until, renamed Sonata, it was played byHarriet Cohen at one of her earliest recitals in June1920 and again by her when revised for publication in1921.
In this 'Russian' sonata, colouristic effects abound,particularly at the bottom of the keyboard. The darkhuedimages that Bax conjures certainly appear to havebeen written with some other palette in mind than theblack and white of the piano. The characteristics of themusic that strike one immediately are its passion andits onward sweep, developing the material organicallyinto a large-scale structure. In this work Bax does notoffer us musical picture postcards as he does in theshort, Russian-oriented, May Night in the Ukrainewhich he wrote in 1912 and dedicated to his femalecompanions in Russia 'Olga and Natalie'. The 'broadand triumphant' coda is punctuated by a vivid pianisticimpression of the wild pealing of Russian cathedralbells, the bells that Bax heard as he first arrived in StPetersburg. Frank Merrick has suggested that 'the bellsin Bax's coda may well have been inspired by those ofthe Cathedral of St Isaac . . . I was there for a fortnightin that very year . . . and had hardly reached my roomin an hotel when those wonderful bells did theirremarkable performance, twice in close succession.
Bax does not use the actual motif with which the tinybells began and ended, but what he has written hasseveral points which lead me to think that it was fromthe bells of this very Cathedral that he was helped toplan his superb ending to the sonata.'The Second Sonata, still in one movement, is muchgrimmer in character, though also epic in treatment andis dated 19th July 1919. Bax does not give us a specificprogramme, but we might well assume it to be relatedto the First World War, or more likely, again thetragedy of the Easter Rising, which is hinted at in thefolk-like second subject of the first section. The sonatawas first performed by Bax's friend Arthur Alexanderin November that year, though on the manuscriptHarriet Cohen has written a dedication to herself andwhen the revised version appeared in June 1920 shewas the pianist. In a letter to Tilly Fleischmann Baxadmitted the Sonata was 'concerned with the warringforces of light and darkness'.
The sonata, which plays continuously, broadlysubsumes elements of three movements with two newthemes in the middle section and the motif of the longthreatening introduction to the sonata returning tomark the third. Here, material from the previous twosections are juxtaposed and the work ends with themotif from the introduction now in the major, allpassion spent.
The journey from the ominous, forebodingintroduction with its distinctive motif (p