About this Recording
8.557540 - BAX: Violin Sonatas, Vol. 1 (Nos. 1, 3)
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 3

Arnold Bax and his brother Clifford spent their teens and young manhood at his parents' Hampstead mansion where a succession of artistic contemporaries visited to play music, laze in the extensive gardens and dream impossible dreams of 'more than life can give' (as Clifford put it). As they were well-off neither had to take a position to earn a living once they ceased their education, and so Arnold having left the Royal Academy of Music where he had spent the years 1900-1905, was free to travel, develop his music and indulge in a succession of love affairs, which are reflected in his music.

Despite enjoying such blessings, however, Bax only slowly evolved his mature style, and so his wider reputation and the works by which he was long remembered did not really begin to appear until a couple of years before the First World War. As is well-known, Bax was in thrall to the country, legends and people of the west of Ireland where he spent many months, particularly in his romantic twenties. First captivated by the poetry of Yeats, from 1902 he regularly visited the remote Donegal coastal village of Glencolumcille, and the country and stormy climate of the west can be fairly described as the catalyst in the development of his mature style.

Although Bax only published three violin sonatas, he actually wrote five. The earliest is a one movement piece in G minor written in 1901 while he was a student, and the last in two movements, which he withheld and recast as the Nonet of 1931. All are characterized by a particular player – the early G minor for his Academy girl-friend Gladys Lees (it was later played by another RAM contemporary Ivy Angove), the First Sonata by a very young Winifred Smith and later played by Paul Kochanski. It is possible the Second Sonata may have been inspired by the playing of May Harrison but it was actually played by Bessie Rawlins. The Third Sonata was performed in 1927 by Emil Telmányi and later by May Harrison.

The First Sonata was revised over a long period but was actually inspired by Bax's passion for a Ukrainian girl who suddenly appeared in his Hampstead circle in the autumn of 1909. On the manuscript Bax calls her Mselle Natalia Skarginski' (more properly Natalie Skarginska). The first movement was completed on 2 February 1910, the original 'slow and sombre' slow movement on 8 February and presumably the finale (which is undated) soon after. Knowing how fast Bax worked it seems probable that the first movement was written in the first weeks of 1910. In his autobiography Bax disguises Natalie as 'Loubya Korolenko' and writes: 'Oh! Loubya was like a naiad for beauty – a golden Roussalka with ice-blue eyes! Lured by the fascination of her nationality and history how easily did I slip into absorbing love of her! – a disastrous and humiliating adventure, but one I have never regretted…'. The first movement, at least, is a passionate declaration of love. Years later Natalie wrote to him that he lived: 'in the zeal of your own fancy much more, than in the real world'.

In April 1910 she decided to return to Russia and Bax went with her, a journey that had significant influence on his later musical style but not on his love life. There must have been a private performance of the sonata because in February 1912 he wrote to another friend, Rosalind Thornycroft, who had recently married his great friend Godwyn Baynes: 'It did not sound at all like anything else, and I realised for the first time that my harmonic scheme is unlike that of other modern composers … one cannot know one's own work until one gets entirely outside it, which I did listening to it from the next room.'

Bax must have already realised that the second and third movements would not do, because when Winifred Smith and Myra Hess appeared with it at the Steinway Hall in June 1914, they only played the first movement. In 1915 Bax wrote new second and third movements, though in this form it still went unplayed, until Bax met the Polish violinist Paul Kochański, who contributed various technical emendations to the violin part. Bax played it with Kochański at the small recital hall at Queen's Hall in November 1920. It was then published by Murdoch, one of his first to appear in print from his future publisher, and Bax appeared again with it, this time with Bessie Rawlins at Wigmore Hall a year later. The further polished and slightly cut version recorded here was reissued by Chappell (who took over Murdoch in the Second World War) in 1945.

The first movement is largely concerned with the motto theme heard at the outset, which returns in the third movement. One might call this the 'love' theme, rather than the 'Natalie' theme, because by the time he came to write the new finale he was married and just embarked on his love affair with Harriet Cohen, then aged nineteen, who eventually precipitated the break-up of his marriage. This is given added force by the quotation from W.B. Yeats which he wrote at the head of the manuscript: A pity beyond all telling is / Hid in the heart of love. The motto theme is finally serene in the closing bars. Before that, the new second movement is a vigorous scherzo, yet in its contrasted slow trio the wraith of the motto theme also makes a passing appearance.

The two deleted movements are remarkably substantial, both running longer than the movements that replace them. Much later Bax wrote to May Harrison referring to the original slow movement as 'rather too juvenile for public performance', though when he added 'a movement which could not very well be played by itself' one is inclined to take his comments with a composer's pinch of salt, for they both make splendid encores. In the original middle movement Bax's personality is never in doubt, indeed his heart is perhaps too much on his sleeve, but the original finale, while exciting and referring back to the motto is not so characteristic of his later music and certainly to us represents an artistically more immature Bax. Bax's final plan, with a scherzando middle movement, makes for a more satisfying whole. Indeed replacing these two movements shows us Bax being able to be remarkably objective in developing his style, even if to us they are still enjoyable in their own right. The original slow movement's waltz-like middle-section tune in popular style is surely the precursor of 'The Grey Dancer in the Twilight' in the Second Sonata. The headlong semiquavers of the original finale, have an engaging physicality even if they are not found elsewhere in Bax's music, but the rapprochement with the motto theme, in the context of the Sonata, because less developed, would have been less satisfying than Bax's treatment in its replacement.

The two-movement Sonata No. 3 was sketched in the summer of 1927 and was written during the autumn of that year. It was first performed by the violinist Emil Telmányi (the composer Carl Nielsen's son-in-law) with Bax at the piano, in a BBC broadcast chamber concert from London's Arts Theatre Club on 4 February 1929. Telmányi 'certainly makes it fearfully exciting' Bax remarked at the time. It was published later the same year, with a dedication to the violinist who gave the first performance.

While the style is notably more concentrated than in the earlier sonata, less sensuous and decorated, there is no mistaking the Irish – and hence autobiographical – thread which runs through it, lyrically in the first movement, rhythmically in the headlong second with its reflective central interlude.

The first movement opens in classic Baxian style, in the gloomy depths of the piano. The preludial brooding violin of the first bars finds the composer in introspective mood, singing a falling motif which has something of a keening feel to it, and which generates much of what is to follow. It rises to a climax and leads on to a tune first heard on the piano which sounds as though it might be an Irish folk-song but is almost certainly one of Bax's manufactured themes encompassing folk elements.

The Irish genesis for this music is underlined by the folk-dance rhythms in the vigorous second movement. Though no dancer himself, Bax had long familiarity with dancing over the west of Ireland for ten years before the First World War, when he had been witnessing an authentic local custom. Although he rarely uses actual dance tunes in the form of jigs or reels, a certain kind of ferocious fast allegro in 2/4 accompanied by a stamping rhythm, as here, creates the intoxicated mood.

After nearly three minutes of aggressive running semiquavers, Bax reinforces the Irish flavour by introducing a new rhythmic theme in 6/8 and marking it 'Planxty'. This word has become familiar as the title of a well-known Irish folk group, and signifies an animated harp tune in triplets. The central interlude finds Bax dreaming of things past, his reverie hinting at the romantic climax of the revised last movement of the First Sonata.

Bax found his own piano part quite a sweat when he was faced with playing it for the BBC, telling Harriet Cohen 'the second movement of my sonata is indescribably difficult and there seems to be a catch in nearly every bar and no time to think'!

© Lewis Foreman


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