Piano Works Vol.4: Music for T
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Although best known for his symphonic poems and symphonies, Bax also wrote prolifically for the piano, his instrument from the first. The two-piano music heard on this recording was written mostly in the late 1920s for the husband and wife piano duet team
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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.
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.
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.