The piano quintet of Arnold Bax is a highly regarded but infrequently recorded chamber work from the great English composer's "early maturity" (1914-15). Indeed, this new recording by Ashley Wass and the Tippett Quartet appears to be the first to come on the scene since a 1992 Chandos disc from David Norris and the Mistry Quartet (Bax: Piano Quintet / String Quartet 2), which I haven't heard. The music itself is outstanding, and given the revival of interest in Bax's chamber works it's nice to see this new recording at budget price from the very capable pianist Wass, even if it seems a bit of a mystery as to why this work has been neglected for so long. Pianist John McCabe in an interview with Robert Barnett, editor of the British Music Society Newsletter, called the Quintet "superb," but also said "I haven't played it - I looked at it once, but this is a case where the writing demands a bigger hand than mine, or that's the impression I got. (The same is true of the Bridge [Quintet], which is another marvelous piece I can't contemplate!)." In any case, it took me a couple of listens to really appreciate what Bax was up to here - the turbulent string parts in the first movement seemed almost off-putting at first - but the beauty of the second movement, the Celtic roots of which are a common thread in the works of Bax, caught me completely; and the third movement completed the final panel of a Baxian triptych.
The Bridge Piano Quintet is well represented in the catalogue, including what's supposed to be a fine recording by Piers Lane and the Goldner Quartet (Bridge: Piano Quintet, String Quartet No. 4, Three Idylls); however, familiar as I am with the chamber works from this composer, this one was new to me. The Quintet was composed 1904-05 and received its first performance in 1907, only to be withdrawn and rewritten by Bridge and then reintroduced in 1912. While I hesitate to make such comparisons, the Quintet is reminiscent in a certain way of Faure, but it's not derivative. The musical language is that of early Bridge, which is to say, Bridge before the Great War, the impact of which is evident in his later and sometimes more astringent works.
The recorded sound is excellent; and I'm happy to see that Naxos has dispensed with the saccharin cover art adorning some of their earlier Bax and Bridge releases and instead has designed an atmospheric cover that's compatible with the music inside. Warmly recommended.