Almost 20 years have passed since the 50th anniversary commemoration of the death of Sir Arnold Bax and the concurrent release of Vernon Handley’s complete set of Bax symphonies on Chandos. That set received enormous amounts of media attention and became the ‘go-to’ set for the Bax symphonies.
Superlative liner notes from Graham Parlett, added to full texts and a loving presentation from EM Records, make ‘From the Hills of Dream’ an attractive prospect. But does the music of Bax’s forgotten songs justify such quality treatment? Christopher Webber asks the question …
An absorbing recital of English piano music, from the acclaimed Schubert specialist Franzisca Lee on the Capriccio label, is bookended by two, great 1st Sonatas: Tippett’s coming-of-age breakthrough and Bax’s Russian-inspired confessional dominate her programme, which also includes substantial works by Britten, Bridge and Ireland. Christopher Webber reviews…
If you are looking for a perfect stocking-stuffer for your music-loving friend who also has a liking for British song and composers, then I’ve got the perfect suggestion for you. Bass-Baritone Timothy Dickinson and pianist Duncan Honeybourne have combined their considerable talents to create a gorgeous disc of yuletide songs by British composers that features some well-known favorites alongside a few rarities including a selection of little-known carol arrangements by Arnold Bax.
Harriet Cohen’s influence on Sir Arnold Bax’s music was arguably greatest on his piano music for which she was his muse and frequent dedicatee as well as constant performer. It is therefore surprising that she recorded so little of it commercially aside from the Viola Sonata with William Primrose and a handful of piano miniatures. There also exists a live recording of Winter Legends from a BBC broadcast but sadly none of her performances of the piano sonatas were captured either on vinyl or tape. While many have claimed she was a pianist of limited ability (superb in Bach but compromised in pieces requiring a more formidable technique), she still possessed an understanding of Bax’s music that she acquired from having known the composer on very intimate terms for much of their lives. She also imposed an unofficial ban on others performing his piano music, which of course prevented it from being played and recorded by pianists who might have been better able to promote it during Bax’s lifetime. As a result, we have very few recordings of Bax’s piano music recorded during the composer’s life but we are lucky to again be able to hear one set of the sonatas and selected piano pieces played by a friends and contemporary of the composer who understood his intentions and whose playing of these major works deserves to be described as authoritative.
Frank Merrick & Henry Holst (Nimbus Grand Piano, 4 CD set) Hot on the heels of Nimbus’s Frank Merrick: A Recorded Legacy, a bumper box of 9 CDs centred on the pianist’s pioneering recordings of Bax’s sonatas and a handful of shorter works – including Paean which was dedicated to him – comes this equally valuable supplement for piano and violin. Merrick’s partner throughout 4 CDs of underexposed 20th c. repertoire is the Danish violinist Henry Holst, a pupil of Carl Nielsen who led the pre-war Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler and went on to become principal professor of violin at the Royal Manchester College of Music for thirty years, while continuing his high-profile career as an orchestral leader and soloist.
Play of Colours (Farbenspiel) Trio Partout. The reason Bax’s Elegiac Trio has been recorded so frequently – more often than any other of his works excepting Tintagel and the Clarinet Sonata – has something to do with its delectable brevity, but more to do with the fact that it makes an ideal companion to Debussy’s famous sonata for the same, unusual forces. Because the English work was written one year after the French, the assumption has often been made that its composer was consciously writing an hommage: but Graham Parlett’s recent examination of composition, performance and publication dates suggests strongly that Bax could not have heard Debussy’s masterly sonata (or studied the score) before writing his own. The near-simultaneous appearance of these lovely works may well have been happy chance.
Piano Music by Arnold Bax on Usk Recordings. Hot on the heels of Mark Bebbington’s ‘Private Passions’ comes another splendid CD that also contains works that have never been recorded before. Natalia Williams-Wandoch has been playing the pieces included here at recitals over the past few years, and it was good news when we learned that she had decided to record them for the Usk label in January 2018. With a single exception—the slow movement of the Sonata in B flat—these are all world premières, and for that reason alone will be required listening for Bax enthusiasts.
Piano music by Arnold Bax and Harriet Cohen. Strangely, the only pieces here to be published in their own time were Cohen’s four, brief Russian Impressions, and I wish I could report that they were better than pleasant makeweights. I’m glad to have heard this first recording, but nothing in these derivative, oddly directionless miniatures made me eager to revisit Cohen the composer. As Germaine Greer puts it, mediocrity is mediocrity, even where its creator is female. Let’s be grateful that Harriet Cohen’s magnetic artistry and personality gave birth to Bax’s remarkable musical world, and that Mark Bebbington has brought some of their obscurer riches into the light of day. This is truly a disc to treasure.
With this disc, Lionel Handy completes his survey of Bax’s cello music including the much-maligned Cello Concerto that appeared on an earlier Lyrita disc. Here he performs Bax’s Cello Sonata from 1923 and couples it with the cello sonata of …Continue reading →