4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
J Scott Morrison
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Format: Audio CD
On my side of the Atlantic the piano music of Arnold Bax (1883-1953) is almost never heard -- a pity as all that I've ever heard (always by recordings) is immediately enjoyable. His music tends to combine features of late Romanticism with impressionistic harmonies and highly independent and complex chromatic counterpoint. He was known in his student days as both a breathtakingly talented improviser at the keyboard and as a consummate orchestral score reader. Yet he almost never appeared in public as a performer, either as pianist or conductor even of his own works. A man of independent means, he did not have to make a living and yet he was an indefatigable worker and wrote enormous amounts of music. For me it is his piano music that is most fascinating and enjoyable, although I also am very fond of some of his orchestral tone poems -- 'The Garden of Fand' and 'November Woods' in particular, and of course his most popular work, 'Tintagel'.
In Britain, however, Bax's music is frequently played and there have been some wonderful recordings of much of his work. This disc is labeled 'Volume 4' of Bax's piano works, although I've only ever seen Volume 2 Bax: Piano Works Vol. 2 - Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 & 4; Water Music; Winter Waters, which also featured the rising pianist, Ashley Wass, and contains the second and third sonatas as well as what in my mind is a minor masterpiece, 'Winter Waters.' This disc contains two-piano music and Wass is joined by the redoubtable Martin Roscoe, well-known as a teacher and as a pianist performing widely in both solo and two piano music. They start out with what has to be one of the most delightful pieces I've discovered in recent years, the 'Festival Overture'. And that it saw the light of day in modern times is a bit of a miracle, as booklet writer (and Bax biographer) Lewis Foreman recounts. One day he met another Bax enthusiast, pianist Vivian Langrish, who told him of this then-unknown piece, said he happened to have a manuscript copy in his music case, and lent it to Foreman saying 'it's quite safe, I have the [only] other copy'. Langrish died not long after and the other copy was never found. Foreman arranged for a BBC broadcast, the first performance in possibly fifty years. It is generally light-hearted, although there is a somewhat more serious section in the middle, and it evokes what Bax termed a 'carnival' spirit. As in all the music here, Wass and Roscoe give a definitive performance.
Noteworthy is 'The Poisoned Fountain', another of Bax's 'water pieces', at the beginning of which the two pianists play their respective rapid figurations independently of each other, making for a particularly striking evocation of flowing water. The Irish-influenced 'Moy Mell' is perhaps better known as an orchestral piece, but this two-piano version is the original. This is one of Bax's 'Celtic twilight' pieces and is perhaps the most directly impressionistic work here.
The 'Sonata for Two Pianos', in three movements and lasting about 22 minutes, is the biggest work here. It, like much of Bax's two-piano music, was written for the married team of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. Although there is no official program, Robertson said that Bax told him the first movement is about 'the coming of spring' and 'the sea in its many varieties of mood.' The second movement has striking similarities harmonically and melodically to Bax's orchestral tone poem, 'The Garden of Fand.' The third movement is an abandoned, even primitive dance that evokes both celebration and a sense of menace.
'The Devil That Tempted St. Anthony', also written for the Robertsons, is marked 'lento languido' and, like 'Moy Mell' is strongly influenced by French impressionism. 'Red Autumn' and 'Hardanger' are landscape pieces, the former limning autumn in the Chilterns, the latter painting, in a musical homage to the piano music Grieg, a scene in the Hardanger district of Norway.
One cannot imagine better performances of these wonderful pieces. And the music itself is treasurable. Sound is excellent.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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Format: Audio CD
It's a pity that this disc opens with the early "Festival Overture," a mostly uncharacteristic fourteen minute piece from Bax composed in 1909, that more or less lay buried until its BBC premiere in 1983. Bax described its atmosphere of revelry as "somewhat akin to that of a Continental carnival," and indeed the first five minutes conjure up the hurdy-gurdy sounds of a circus and its sideshows. If you can get through that, the "Festival Overture" turns into something altogether different, something which is far more Baxian, at least for a while. At about minute number nine, however, the carnival theme returns and "Festival Overture" proceeds to unwind into alot of bravura playing that sounds more Elgarian than anything else.
Fortunately, things take a dramatic turn for the better with "The Poisoned Fountain," a Debussyian display of water music that's every bit the equal of anything imagistic Bax wrote for piano. "Moy Mell" which follows, subtitled "An Irish Tone-Poem," is classic Bax. The composer, who wrote music about what he called the "pagan places of bliss," was inspired by Yeats who he said "introduced me to the Irish Faery hierarchy" and its "three different earthly paradises as conceived by the ancient Gael." These associations, along with the Irish landscape, were lifelong sources of inspiration for Bax and are present to one degree or another in the Sonata for two pianos and the three other short pieces that make up the balance of this disc. All of this is great stuff, enough to make you forget the Festival Overture which I will most assuredly bypass each time I play this disc.
Pianists Ashley Wass and Martin Roscoe make great partners and the recorded sound from Naxos is excellent. As an aside, I can't figure out what the art department at Naxos was thinking when they issued this, and some of the other Bax (and Bridge) piano albums, with such saccharin cover art. The music is very far away from that projected by the gauzy country garden scene chosen for this cd.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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Format: Audio CD
Naxos's series of the music of Arnold Bax is nothing if not superbly executed, and the way in which Ashley Wass and Martin Roscoe cooperate on his two-piano music for this volume is little short of remarkable. Now, I am a little hard pressed to claim that any of the works here are anywhere close to masterpieces, but for those already converted to the composer it is surely a must. Bax published six works for piano duo; there is an early Fantasia as well, not included here probably because it does not, for all I know, exists in any performable edition. The only work not for the medium is the Festival Overture. It was written in 1909 and scored in 1911, with a revised version published in 1918. The arrangement at hand is of the 1911 score (it is, in fact, a little unclear who arranged it, but it may have been the composer himself), and it makes just as much an effect in the two piano version - in fact, jt sounds even livelier and sparkling here, and the more heroic middle section is genuinely moving (suggesting in fact that the scoring is perhaps a little too thick). In short this version is strongly recommended even if you know he orchestral one.
Moy Mell was written in 1916 and was Bax's first original work for the piano duo medium. It is a beautiful, touching work with a surprising amount of energy (perhaps due to the performers, who seems to make as strong a case for it as one could imagine). The Devil that tempted St Anthony and Red Autumn were originally written for solo piano. The former is a darker piece and quite dissonant for the composer, though it honestly tends to meander a little. Red Autumn is an effective small tone poem, darkly colored but quite effective. Poisoned Fountain is, as the title might suggest, a dark, ominous work - bleakly mysterious fairy-tale music may be the best description - and a quite stirring one with much striking dialogue between the performers.
The Sonata is of course the big work here. Written in 1929 and cast in three movements, it opens in a drowsy, hazy atmosphere which soon turns quicker and almost dance-like. The slow movement is more obviously Irish in character, but harmonically impressionistic and rather pictorial. The finale is based on folk-rhythms and is relatively light in character, though deploying thematic material from the earlier movements. Overall it is a fine, colorful work, but does perhaps strike me a little as an inconsequential commentary on his symphonies. Hardanger is a catchy miniature written in a style rather reminiscent of Grieg; formally simple but rhythmically alive and a good way to round of this overall very satisfying disc. As mentioned the playing is superb, and the sound is good.