BAX: Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 4 / Water Music / Winter Waters

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Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Piano Works 2

Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 4 Water Music Winter Waters Country-Tune

The piano was Sir Arnold Bax's instrument from thefirst, and by the time he started at the Royal Academy ofMusic in the Autumn of 1900 shortly before hisseventeenth birthday, his student works suggest he wassoon a capable pianist, a technique which grew by leapsand bounds as a pupil of Tobias Matthay. Bax wasunkind in his remembrance of his teacher, and yet in theheadlong, complex piano parts he wrote for the songs heproduced during this time we can document a rapidlygrowing capability, perhaps keener to play Wagneroperas at the keyboard than, say, Chopin. Fully aware ofall the latest developments he soon developed apenchant for the piano music of Scriabin and Debussy.

Bax, however, was not the only talented youngpianist-composers at the Royal Academy at that time.

His contemporaries included York Bowen, BenjaminDale, Felix Swinstead and Paul Corder, all pupils ofTobias Matthay for piano and Frederick Corder forcomposition. At much the same time the pianists MyraHess, Irene Scharrer, and a little later Harriet Cohenwere all Matthay pupils, and of course they playedBax's music. Yet while Bax took many years to make acareer, his contemporary York Bowen was animmediate hit both as pianist and composer and heappeared at Queen's Hall in his own music while still astudent. It is piquant to realise that Bowen's orchestralmusic has been long forgotten while Bax is now widelyknown.

One has the strongest suspicion that Bax's earlymusic must have arisen from improvisation at the piano,and the harmony and colouristic textures which heespoused must then have sounded startlingly modern.

He absorbed every influence he came upon at concertsat London's Queen's Hall where Henry Wood's tastefor the latest Russian novelty was meat and drink toBax. It was his habit, too, in the days before recordingor broadcasting, to play recent orchestral scores at thepiano, often as a duet with his friend, the pianist ArthurAlexander. He thus absorbed the latest sounds comingfrom Europe. Bax and Alexander played throughGlazunov's symphonies in this way, indulging in allmanner of pianistic 'in jokes' with each other - friendssaid they should go on the halls as 'Bax and Frontz'.

Bax's early life was dominated by the keyboard andin his twenties, as well as appearing in concerts playinghis own music, he was also called on in extremis byconcert organizers when more established pianists letthem down. As a consequence of this we find him, inFebruary 1909, accompanying Debussy songs in thecomposer's presence, and in January 1914 he did thesame for Schoenberg's songs when the booked pianistwithdrew at the last minute. From the late 1920sonwards he played in public increasingly rarely,although he did make two recordings - of Delius's FirstViolin Sonata and his own Viola Sonata in May andJune 1929. Bax was a natural pianist, a composer whothought at the keyboard, and the fire in his romanticpianism is evident in both recordings.

The four large scale Piano Sonatas are thebackbone of Bax's piano music, written between 1910and 1934. That the earlier ones at least are orchestralmusic manque we realise from a fifth, unnumberedsonata, which when orchestrated, in 1922, became hisFirst Symphony. Bax is thinking big things in the firstthree, at least, and is quasi-symphonic in his treatment.

There is also a varied repertoire of shorter pieces. Sometwo dozen highly characteristic atmospheric miniatures(some not quite so miniature), many of them technicallyin the shadow of Debussy or Scriabin, and finally somedozen alternative versions of orchestral works and shortlate piano pieces unpublished in his lifetime. Three ofthe shorter piano pieces written between 1915 and 1920are included here with one of the late ones.

We also need to remember that Bax was obsessedwith the landscape, music and literature of Ireland, andnot having to find regular paid employment, in histwenties he was able to spend much time in the far west,absorbing the atmosphere. Here he developed hisliterary alter ego 'Dermot O'Byrne', publishing poetry,short stories and plays. Bax thus encountered Irishnationalist politics, though his friendship with theleading names has something of unreality about it, andthe Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 came as a personalblow and is reflected in various scores of the time.

Bax's shorter pieces were not all sunlit idylls, and insuch darker scores as the piano piece What the MinstrelTold Us it seems probable that there may be someprogrammatic elements from this time, though by theThird Sonata it is more of a dream remembered intranquillity.

Bax's well-known liaison with the pianist HarrietCohen started in 1915 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 toavoid the heavier demands of concertos by, say, Brahmsand Rachmaninov. Curiously, in Bax's writing,particularly in his works for piano and orchestra, he isseemingly oblivious of her problems, Bax not limitinghis expression by his pianist's difficulties.

The three movement Piano Sonata No. 3 in G sharpminor was completed on 23rd November 1926 and firstperformed by Harriet Cohen in Liverpool on 18thNovember 1927, a performance she repeated in Londonon 23rd January 1928. It was published in 1929. WhenBax came to write this sonata he was between theSecond and Third Symphonies and at the height of hispowers. It is perhaps significant that the last time he hadset out to write a keyboard sonata it had turned into hisFirst Symphony. Perhaps it was this ambiguity of thesound-world for which he was writing that resulted in itcausing him considerable trouble. With its gloomyopening musings and sudden contrasts, the mood is wildbut repeatedly dying away to a dreamlike world. At theend of the development section comes a passageremarkably similar to the world of the SecondSymphony, agitated harmonic wash in the right handrunning semi-quavers, dramatic upward leaping chordsin the left, as if glimpsing some great primevalhappening. The climax is quickly passed and after abrief almost triumphal episode the movement ends witha reminiscence of the opening.

The lyrical slow movement is a piano miniature,though far from simple, with two themes, the secondforming the singing middle-section, Bax's inclination towrite a pseudo-Irish folk-song providing a moment ofcalm in a turbulent world which builds to a triumphalclimax. The first theme returns and the two themesbriefly unite at the end in a long quiet fade-out.

The turbulent headlong finale with its broodingsecond subject and torrents of notes returns us to thebattles of the first movement, the textures thinning intotwo parts before we find ourselves back in the world ofthe opening pages of the sonata.

It must have been apparent to Bax that limiting hischampions 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 other artists tending to avoid it.

Harriet must have been far from pleased when Baxdedicated his Fourth Sonata to the Irish pianist CharlesLynch, and indeed, its first performance was by Harrieton an American tour, when at Town Hall, New York, on1st February 1934, and was repeated by her on herreturn at London's Wigmore Hall on 18th May thatyear.

The prevailing influence in the 1930s was neoclassicism,the revival of eighteenth-century danceforms and the use of simpler, clearer textures. Baxresponded to this less than most but from the late 1920sonwards it is evident in some of his chamber a
Item number 8557592
Barcode 747313259229
Release date 04/01/2005
Category Sonatas
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Wass, Ashley
Wass, Ashley
Composers Bax, Arnold
Bax, Arnold
Disc: 1
O Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies
1 I. Allegro moderato
2 II. Lento moderato
3 III. Allegro
4 I. Allegro giusto
5 II. Allegro quasi Andante
6 III. Allegro
7 Water Music
8 Winter Waters
9 Country Tune
10 O Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies
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