BAX: Vol. 3 / Two Russian Tone Pictures / Nocturne (Ashley Wass) (Naxos: 8.557769)
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Piano Works 3
Arnold Bax wrote nearly thirty short piano pieces duringand immediately after the First World War. These werelargely written for his friends and contemporaries,mainly female, at the Royal Academy of Music, notleast the pianist Harriet Cohen, thirteen years his junior,with whom he was involved in a passionate affair. Whenhe emerged as the leading British composer of the day inthe early 1920s, the availability of these pieces as sheetmusic meant that his new admirers had music that theycould attempt at home, though Bax never wrote down tohis audience and none of the pieces were easy.
It was through the keyboard that Arnold Bax cameto music, and when he enrolled at the Royal Academy ofMusic in the autumn of 1900, the surviving manuscriptsof his earliest compositions suggest he was soon acapable pianist. His technique grew quickly, and in theheadlong, complex piano parts he wrote for the songs heproduced during this time we can document a rapidlygrowing capability, perhaps keenest to play Wagneroperas at the keyboard, but abreast of the latestdevelopments, and he soon developed a penchant for thepiano music of Scriabin and Debussy.
Bax's early music arose from improvisation at thepiano, and from playing the latest orchestral scores atthe keyboard, and he became celebrated for his ability toread orchestral full scores at sight. He heard a great dealof new music and it was his habit, too, to play duets withhis friends, notably the pianist Arthur Alexander, withwhom he played through Glazunov's symphonies in thisway. Although not a regular concert pianist, Bax wasoccasionally called on to play modern music when moreestablished figures cried off. As a consequence of thiswe find him, in February 1909, accompanying Debussysongs in the composer's presence, and in January 1914he did the same for Schoenberg's songs when thebooked pianist withdrew at the last minute. From thelate 1920s onwards he played in public increasinglyrarely, although he did make two recordings - ofDelius's First Violin Sonata and his own Viola Sonata,in May and June 1929. Bax was a natural pianist, acomposer who thought at the keyboard, and the fire inhis romantic pianism is evident in both of thoseperformances.
While the four large-scale piano sonatas are thebackbone of Bax's piano music (Naxos 8.557439 and8.557592), there is also a varied repertoire of shorterpieces. These include highly characteristic atmosphericminiatures (some not quite so miniature), many of themtechnically in the shadow of Debussy or Scriabin, alsoalternative versions of scores most familiar to us asorchestral works, as well as short late piano piecesunpublished in his lifetime.
We also need to remember that Bax was obsessedwith the landscape, music and literature of Ireland, andin his twenties was able to spend much time there,absorbing the atmosphere, and, under the pseudonymDermot O'Byrne, publishing poetry, short stories andplays. Bax thus encountered Irish nationalist politics,though his friendship with the leading names hassomething of unreality about it, and the Easter Rising inDublin in 1916 came as a personal blow reflected invarious scores of the time. Bax's shorter pieces were notall sunlit idylls, and in such darker scores as the pianopieces Winter Waters and What the Minstrel Told Us itseems probable that there may be untold programmaticelements from this time.
Bax's well-known liaison with the pianist HarrietCohen started late in 1914 and many of his short pianopieces were dedicated to her. Indeed this resulted inrivalry between Harriet ('Tania' to her circle) and MyraHess in the playing of Bax's piano music. Yet HarrietCohen had small hands and this later caused her to avoidthe heavier demands of concertos by, say, Brahms andRachmaninov. Curiously, in Bax's writing, particularlyin his works for piano and orchestra, he is seeminglyoblivious of her problems, not limiting his expression byhis pianist's difficulties.
It must have been apparent to Bax that restrictinghis champions at the piano to just Harriet Cohen andoccasionally Myra Hess was not a good idea, and yetHarriet insisted on being the first to play all his pianomusic, resulting in others tending to avoid it, perhaps thereason it did not become more widely established in theconcert repertoire in its day.
The earliest pieces in our programme, dating from1912, are the Two Russian Tone-Pictures given theevocative titles Nocturne: May Night in the Ukraine andGopak. The Nocturne was dedicated to 'Olga andNatasha'. In the spring and summer of 1910 Bax went toRussia and the Ukraine in pursuit of a Ukrainian girl,Natalia Skarginska, whom he had met in Hampstead, thetwo of them accompanied by a mutual friend, OlgaAntonietti. In his autobiography Bax tells the story andgives them the pseudonyms 'Loubya Korolenko' and'Fiammetta'. May Night in the Ukraine is a graphicmusical image derived from Nikolay Gogol's celebratedevocation in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka,towards the end complete with trilling nightingales.
Gopak is subtitled National Dance and when it was firstplayed by Myra Hess at the Bechstein Hall in April 1913it was actually called 'Barbarian Dance', which perhapshints at the composer's intention. Nevertheless it was'affectionately dedicated' to his piano teacher TobiasMatthay. These pieces were played by Myra Hess (theNocturne was first played in November 1912) and it wasshe who launched Bax's reputation as a composer ofevocative piano miniatures.
For the next two or three years, Bax wrote variouspiano works, most of which were later orchestrated orwithheld. Early in 1915, however, he was stimulatedinto writing a succession of such pieces for the eighteenyear-old Harriet Cohen. The dedications of the fourpieces written in 1915 speak volumes. The Princess'sRose Garden, The Maiden with the Daffodil and AMountain Mood (the first two written in January 1915)are inscribed to 'Tania', she being both the princess andthe maiden with the daffodil (when Bax encountered herat a party in January that year).
Bax gave Harriet Cohen The Maiden with theDaffodil with a verse dedication: 'This for the maidenwith the daffodil/Whose fingers' intricate enchantmentsfill/Our ears with far strayed echoes of Romance.' Baxmarks the music as 'fresh and innocent' and one has tosay that few more escapist pieces can have been writtenduring the First World War. Not dissimilar, the nocturneThe Princess's Rose-Garden is marked 'Drowsilyrhythmical and moderately slow', in 9/8, its gentle pulsemaking us unsure whether Bax intends a lullaby or ismerely intoxicated by the scented atmosphere.
Doubtless Harriet Cohen played them in private inBax's Academy circle, but in fact it was again MyraHess who appeared with The Maiden with the Daffodilat the Aeolian Hall on 24th March 1915 and ThePrincess's Rose Garden at the Grafton Galleries on 29thApril 1915. They immediately found a publisher.
Bax's marriage was soon to end, but the miniatureSleepy-Head, dated 24th May 1915, is dedicated to hiswife, Elsita. Sleepy-Head is surely a musical vignette ofBax's sleeping children, Dermot and Maeve, then threeand two respectively. A Mountain Mood: melody andvariations, dated 2nd Sept 1915, was again dedicated toHarriet Cohen, Bax adding 'who plays it perfectly'.
The remaining pieces included here appeared afterthe First World war, largely written in 1919 or 1920.
Many of them evoke happy and exotic scenes, but Whatthe Minstrel Told Us, dating from 1919 and dedicatedagain to Harriet Cohen, confronts more serious issues.
This is another of those memorial scores that Bax wrotein the wake of the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 inwhich he had lost many of his pre-war Irish friends. Thathe subtitles this piece with the word 'ballad' andeffectively writes variations on a ma