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8.557592 - BAX: Piano Works, Vol. 2
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Piano Works • 2
Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 4 • Water Music • Winter Waters • Country-Tune

The piano was Sir Arnold Bax’s instrument from the first, and by the time he started at the Royal Academy of Music in the Autumn of 1900 shortly before his seventeenth birthday, his student works suggest he was soon a capable pianist, a technique which grew by leaps and bounds as a pupil of Tobias Matthay. Bax was unkind in his remembrance of his teacher, and yet in the headlong, complex piano parts he wrote for the songs he produced during this time we can document a rapidly growing capability, perhaps keener to play Wagner operas at the keyboard than, say, Chopin. Fully aware of all the latest developments he soon developed a penchant for the piano music of Scriabin and Debussy.

Bax, however, was not the only talented young pianist-composers at the Royal Academy at that time. His contemporaries included York Bowen, Benjamin Dale, Felix Swinstead and Paul Corder, all pupils of Tobias Matthay for piano and Frederick Corder for composition. At much the same time the pianists Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer, and a little later Harriet Cohen were all Matthay pupils, and of course they played Bax’s music. Yet while Bax took many years to make a career, his contemporary York Bowen was an immediate hit both as pianist and composer and he appeared at Queen’s Hall in his own music while still a student. It is piquant to realise that Bowen’s orchestral music has been long forgotten while Bax is now widely known.

One has the strongest suspicion that Bax’s early music must have arisen from improvisation at the piano, and the harmony and colouristic textures which he espoused must then have sounded startlingly modern. He absorbed every influence he came upon at concerts at London’s Queen’s Hall where Henry Wood’s taste for the latest Russian novelty was meat and drink to Bax. It was his habit, too, in the days before recording or broadcasting, to play recent orchestral scores at the piano, often as a duet with his friend, the pianist Arthur Alexander. He thus absorbed the latest sounds coming from Europe. Bax and Alexander played through Glazunov’s symphonies in this way, indulging in all manner of pianistic ‘in jokes’ with each other – friends said they should go on the halls as ‘Bax and Frontz’.

Bax’s early life was dominated by the keyboard and in his twenties, as well as appearing in concerts playing his own music, he was also called on in extremis by concert organizers when more established pianists let them down. As a consequence of this we find him, in February 1909, accompanying Debussy songs in the composer’s presence, and in January 1914 he did the same for Schoenberg’s songs when the booked pianist withdrew at the last minute. From the late 1920s onwards he played in public increasingly rarely, although he did make two recordings – of Delius’s First Violin Sonata and his own Viola Sonata in May and June 1929. Bax was a natural pianist, a composer who thought at the keyboard, and the fire in his romantic pianism is evident in both recordings.

The four large scale Piano Sonatas are the backbone of Bax’s piano music, written between 1910 and 1934. That the earlier ones at least are orchestral music manqué we realise from a fifth, unnumbered sonata, which when orchestrated, in 1922, became his First Symphony. Bax is thinking big things in the first three, at least, and is quasi-symphonic in his treatment. There is also a varied repertoire of shorter pieces. Some two dozen highly characteristic atmospheric miniatures (some not quite so miniature), many of them technically in the shadow of Debussy or Scriabin, and finally some dozen alternative versions of orchestral works and short late piano pieces unpublished in his lifetime. Three of the shorter piano pieces written between 1915 and 1920 are included here with one of the late ones.

We also need to remember that Bax was obsessed with the landscape, music and literature of Ireland, and not having to find regular paid employment, in his twenties he was able to spend much time in the far west, absorbing the atmosphere. Here he developed his literary alter ego ‘Dermot O’Byrne’, publishing poetry, short stories and plays. Bax thus encountered Irish nationalist politics, though his friendship with the leading names has something of unreality about it, and the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 came as a personal blow and is reflected in various scores of the time. Bax’s shorter pieces were not all sunlit idylls, and in such darker scores as the piano piece What the Minstrel Told Us it seems probable that there may be some programmatic elements from this time, though by the Third Sonata it is more of a dream remembered in tranquillity.

Bax’s well-known liaison with the pianist Harriet Cohen started in 1915 and many of his short piano pieces were dedicated to her. Indeed this resulted in rivalry between Harriet (‘Tania’ to her circle) and Myra Hess in the playing of Bax’s piano music. Yet Harriet Cohen had small hands and this later caused her to avoid the heavier demands of concertos by, say, Brahms and Rachmaninov. Curiously, in Bax’s writing, particularly in his works for piano and orchestra, he is seemingly oblivious of her problems, Bax not limiting his expression by his pianist’s difficulties.

The three movement Piano Sonata No. 3 in G sharp minor was completed on 23rd November 1926 and first performed by Harriet Cohen in Liverpool on 18th November 1927, a performance she repeated in London on 23rd January 1928. It was published in 1929. When Bax came to write this sonata he was between the Second and Third Symphonies and at the height of his powers. It is perhaps significant that the last time he had set out to write a keyboard sonata it had turned into his First Symphony. Perhaps it was this ambiguity of the sound-world for which he was writing that resulted in it causing him considerable trouble. With its gloomy opening musings and sudden contrasts, the mood is wild but repeatedly dying away to a dreamlike world. At the end of the development section comes a passage remarkably similar to the world of the Second Symphony, agitated harmonic wash in the right hand running semi-quavers, dramatic upward leaping chords in the left, as if glimpsing some great primeval happening. The climax is quickly passed and after a brief almost triumphal episode the movement ends with a reminiscence of the opening.

The lyrical slow movement is a piano miniature, though far from simple, with two themes, the second forming the singing middle-section, Bax’s inclination to write a pseudo-Irish folk-song providing a moment of calm in a turbulent world which builds to a triumphal climax. The first theme returns and the two themes briefly unite at the end in a long quiet fade-out.

The turbulent headlong finale with its brooding second subject and torrents of notes returns us to the battles of the first movement, the textures thinning into two parts before we find ourselves back in the world of the opening pages of the sonata.

It must have been apparent to Bax that limiting his champions at the piano to just Harriet Cohen and occasionally Myra Hess was not a good idea, and yet Harriet insisted on being the first to play all his piano music, resulting in other artists tending to avoid it. Harriet must have been far from pleased when Bax dedicated his Fourth Sonata to the Irish pianist Charles Lynch, and indeed, its first performance was by Harriet on an American tour, when at Town Hall, New York, on 1st February 1934, and was repeated by her on her return at London’s Wigmore Hall on 18th May that year.

The prevailing influence in the 1930s was neoclassicism, the revival of eighteenth-century dance forms and the use of simpler, clearer textures. Bax responded to this less than most but from the late 1920s onwards it is evident in some of his chamber and orchestral music, and perhaps most clearly in the outer movements of the Fourth Piano Sonata. Gone are the thick chromatic textures low on the keyboard. Gone the introspective brooding, the storms of arpeggiated semiquavers. Instead we have a clear-cut texture and a singing second subject quickly introduced. While we do not have that feeling of autobiography apparent in the first three sonatas, the middle section created by the first subject treated as an inexorable two bar ostinato builds remarkably powerfully.

The middle movement is a delicate Baxian piano miniature which has been programmed separately by some pianists. This moment of stillness, indefinitely prolonged, is created by the constant repetition of the note G sharp, which generates a magical atmosphere against which Bax projects his two long-breathed tunes. Bax’s Irish friend Tilly Fleischmann thought Bax had adapted his tune from the Irish folk-song ‘Has sorrow thy young days shaded’.

The headlong finale starts as a brilliant toccata with elements of a wild dance about it. There follows a more introspective middle section which unsuccessfully tries to revisit the dance before launching on a broadly romantic statement of the theme which is then reprised as a triumphal march, perhaps with overtones of the treatment of the Fourth Symphony first performed at much the same time. Bax ends with an insouciant throwaway return to the toccata music, as if to say, “do not let us get too heavy about this”.

Among Ashley Wass’s shorter pieces we find examples of the four main categories into which Bax’s piano miniatures fall: a piano arrangement of a popular orchestral work; a serious miniature drama; a delightful popular encore; and a late miniature written for a specific occasion.

Water Music is not primarily a piano piece, but an extract from Bax’s ballet music, from his orchestral score for J M Barrie’s The Truth About the Russian Dancers. There it is called ‘Dance of Motherhood’ and was danced by the famous ballerina Tamara Karsavina, opening at the London Coliseum on 15th March 1920. On the orchestra Bax first gave the gorgeous opening tune to the horn, with all manner of evocative associations. In this piano version it is dedicated to Lady George Cholmondley, who as Mrs Christopher Lowther had devised his wartime ballet From Dusk till Dawn. The invention dates from before the First World War, and the theme actually appears in his early unsuccessful attempt at a full-length ballet called Tamara or King Kojata, written in 1911 but not orchestrated until over eighty years later when Graham Parlett produced a concert suite from Bax’s manuscript.

Winter Waters is subtitled ‘Tragic Landscape’ and is dated 5th September 1915 and dedicated to the pianist Arthur Alexander, who presumably gave the first performance during the First World War. Harriet Cohen played it in one of her earliest recitals on 6th June 1919 at London’s Æolian Hall. It was published in 1918. This dramatic miniature tone-poem pre-dates the Irish tragedy, so although he had no experience of the trenches, Bax may have had the western front in mind. This haunting and powerful score adopts the ternary shape of his orchestral tone poems, and the tender and expressive central section that Bax marks ‘singing softly’ and the quiet poetic fade out at the end is as evocative as any of his orchestral sunsets.

Country-Tune is the archetypal piano miniature by Bax, aimed at a wide audience, which his publisher, Murdoch and Murdoch, was keen to publish after the First World War, and it seems likely it was specially written to such a commission. Probably composed in 1920 it was issued very quickly the following year. Here, as in his orchestral Summer Music, the country evoked is far more likely to be the Chilterns than his Irish landscapes of the past.

Living in a room over the bar at the White Horse at Storrington, Sussex, in the 1940s, Bax enjoyed a circle of celebrated local musical friends, including John Ireland and Cecil Gray. Among this group were Anna Instone and Julian Herbage, the former responsible for recorded music programmes at the BBC, the latter the well-known mouthpiece of the Sunday Morning ‘Music Magazine’ on which Bax appeared from time to time. Herbage was also responsible for planning the Proms. Dated Storrington 10th December 1945, these uncomplicated variations on the well known North Country Christmas tune O Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies are inscribed ‘To Anna and Julian Herbage in acknowledgement of pies baked and enjoyed “on Christmas Day in the morning” 1945’. As it was broadcast by Harriet Cohen on BBC Music Magazine on 23rd December 1945 presumably the dedication actually came shortly afterwards.

Lewis Foreman 2005


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