About this Recording
8.555282 - BAX: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2
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Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

Arnold Bax was the eldest son of a well-off non-conformist family from south London, whose early talent was encouraged by his mother, as was that of his brother, the writer and playwright Clifford Bax. Bax was born in Streatham, then still Surrey, but his most impressionable years were spent in Hampstead, then semi-rural, where in 1896 his father bought an imposing mansion, set in three and a half acres.

Bax studied from 1900 to 1905 at the Royal Academy of Music with the composer Frederick Corder and the piano teacher Tobias Matthay. Leaving in the summer of 1905, he was able, thanks to a private income, to develop his musical career as he pleased. Escaping the constraints of parental influence, he adopted a semi-bohemian lifestyle, travelling widely, to Dresden, and subsequently Russia, and, best of all, to the west coast of Ireland, where, ‘lorded by the Atlantic’, as he put it, and under the influence of the early poetry of Yeats, he discovered the village of Glencolumcille in Donegal, to which, until the First World War, he constantly returned.

Imbibing all things Irish, Bax wrote poetry, short stories and Synge-like plays, published under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne. Married in 1911, he set up house in a Dublin suburb, and moved in Dublin literary and nationalist circles; his friends and acquaintances included the poet and writer Padraic Colum, founder of the Irish Review, and Padraig Pearse, champion of the Irish language, who was executed after the Easter Rising in 1916.

It is for his orchestral music that Bax is now more widely known, in particular his atmospheric tone-poems, the most famous of which is Tintagel, written in 1917 and orchestrated by 1919. Between the wars came seven symphonies, which enhanced his reputation at the time, and there was also much piano music, as well as instrumental sonatas and many songs. There is, however, also a large corpus of chamber music and he published three string quartets, a piano trio, a piano quartet, a piano quintet and many works for larger ensemble including a nonet.

Two early string quartets survive from Bax’s student years at the Royal Academy, followed soon after by a piano trio, though with viola replacing the usual cello, and then an extended string quintet. All these early chamber works he repudiated, although they remain worthy of revival. His first major work in the medium was his large-scale Piano Quintet, completed early in 1915, followed in 1916 by his Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp.

When Bax came to write his first mature string quartet the war was in its last year, though curiously the quartet is a serene work and bears few overt influence of the times in which it was written. It is dated 1918 and was first performed by the Philharmonic Quartet at London’s Aeolian Hall on 7th June 1918. The published score is dedicated to Sir Edward Elgar who, in response to Bax’s letter of 3rd March 1921 offering the dedication, replied that he ‘liked the look of it’. Bax had visited Elgar at Birchwood at the age of seventeen and he wrote ‘I should be very pleased if you will accept this simple work in memory of an unforgettable day and all the pleasure your own music has given me’.

The opening of the cheerful serenade-like first movement at first recalls the textures of Dvořák’s late chamber music, and Bax certainly shows a remarkable command of the varied textures of the medium. The first theme soon moves on to a second containing elements of the first and then a slower, wistful idea. This middle section moves through a succession of spectral moods before the opening theme returns fortissimo. In the slow movement Bax writes a sorrowing threnody, perhaps connected with the war or remembering lost friends in Ireland, or regretting the passing of the years, the cause of severe depression in later years. A hint that it might be the last of these comes with a brief allusion to Elgar’s Violin Concerto. Performance markings include molto expressivo (sic) and very delicate and expressive. In a spectral middle section all are muted, as they are for the hushed ending. That Bax’s thoughts are in Ireland is confirmed by the last movement, with its opening wild jig-like dance, starting in 2/4 but with a second idea in 6/8, as the music becomes wilder. The fast music gives way to a gorgeously memorable ‘Irish’ tune, which Bax claimed was original, but Irish audiences were convinced was adapted from the folk-song Bán Cnuic Éireann Óg (The Fair Hills of Ireland). Bax was a friend of Herbert Hughes, the arranger of Irish folk-songs, and Hughes’s version of this tune called The Lament of Fanaid Grove was played by their mutual friend the cellist Beatrice Harrison, and later recorded by her. Although differing metrically and in decoration from Bax’s version, it seems likely this may have been his source. The music ends with the return of the dance and Bax in high spirits, concluding a work that was probably the best-known British chamber work between the wars, twice recorded on 78s, but subsequently largely forgotten.

Bax wrote his second string quartet in the winter of 1924-25. The three movements are dated 18th

December 1924, 13th January 1925 and 5th February 1925. It was first performed by the New Philharmonic Quartet at the Grotrian Hall, later the Steinway Hall, in London in a concert of Bax’s chamber music on 15th March 1927. It was published soon after, but, unlike the first quartet, was not widely performed.

Written between the sketches and the orchestration of the despairing Second Symphony, the quartet seems to share its mood. It opens with the solo cello in an extended recitative, eventually joined by the viola, but it is 39 bars before we hear a full quartet texture. In the introduction the cello has four different motifs which are elaborated in what follows. Eventually we reach a lyrical idea given to the viola, marked molto cantabile. At one point there is a ghostly reminiscence of this idea, but the return of this song is long-delayed, the assurance of the First Quartet now a distant memory, although echoes of its mood can be heard from time to time, notably distorted fragments of what once might have been an Irish dance. The richly textured slow movement opens with an expressive theme, the source of most of what follows. It generates a contrasted second subject with an octave displacement near the beginning and returns finally at serene length. In mid-movement Bax includes a two-bar quotation from the theme of his piano piece A Romance, written in 1918 for the pianist Harriet Cohen soon after he left wife and children for her. He returned to it again in the slow movement of his Fourth Symphony. The opening cello recitative from the first movement is now transformed into the dancing, vigorous first subject of the finale. The infectious panache of this sustained passage is eventually followed by contrasted more lyrical music. The sonorous muted middle section is one of those chordal quasi-liturgical themes familiar from the symphonies. Atypically, in this movement Bax writes two fugatos and eventually takes the end motif of the first theme of the finale, reuniting the opening music with its transformation in a brilliant coda.

Lewis Foreman

The Maggini Quartet

Laurence Jackson Violin I

David Angel Violin II

Martin Outram Viola

Michal Kaznowski Cello

Since its inception in 1988, the Maggini Quartet has quickly established itself as a highly acclaimed international quartet, enthralling audiences at festivals and major halls throughout the United Kingdom, on the mainland of Europe, in the United States and the Far East, Renowned for championing British composers, the Quartet has won the Gramophone Chamber Music CD of the Year Award for the April 2001 release of the String Quartets and Phantasy Quintet of Vaughan Williams, part of the Gramophone Award-winning Naxos series of British Music. Other recordings for the series have also received ltigh praise, with the CD of works by Frank Bridge attracting critical acclaim, while the recording of Elgar’s String Quartet and Piano Quintet with Peter Donohoe was a 1997 winner of the Diapason d’Or, France’s most prestigious award for classical music recordings, and the release of the String Quartets and Trio by E. J. Moeran proved to be one of the best selling chamber music CDs of 1998. The Maggini has also recorded all the Britten String Quartets for Naxos, winning praise from Diapason in France, while the second volume was an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone in September 1999 and in Classic CD the following November. The recording of Walton’s String Quartet and Piano Quartet with Peter Donohoe was nominated for a Gramophone Award, as well as being an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone in July 2000 and in the BBC Music Magazine in August 2000. Further planned releases include repertoire by Bax, Bliss, Bridge and John Ireland. The Maggini Quartet has won similar praise for other recordings and has commissioned a number of works, including Robert Simpson’s last work, his Cello Quintet, first performed at the Cheltenham International Festival in 1996, a year which also saw the first performance of Olivia by Roxanna Panufnik, commissioned for the Maggini by BruneI University Arts Centre in London. The Maggini’s 10th Anniversary commission was James MacMillan’s acclaimed Second Quartet, which received its world première at the Wigmore Hall in London in 1998, followed by first performances in Edinburgh and in Vancouver. Tours have brought appearances throughout Britain and international performances have included a series of concerts in Norway. The Quartet takes its name from the famous sixteenth-century Brescian violin-maker Giovanni Paolo Maggini, an example of whose work is played by David Angel.


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