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8.570413 - BAX: Piano Works, Vol. 4 - Music for 2 Pianos
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Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Piano Works 4 • Music for Two Pianos


The pampered son of a well-off middle class Hampstead family, Arnold Bax had every advantage. His discovery of music was centred on the keyboard, and when he attended his audition for entry to London's Royal Academy of Music in the Autumn of 1900 shortly before his seventeenth birthday, he offered Beethoven's Sonata Op. 110, and the Director, Mackenzie, accepted him after a few bars. Clearly Bax must have been a capable teenage pianist and his technique grew quickly as we can see from the headlong piano parts he wrote for himself in the songs he produced as a student. Bax was one of many talented young pianist-composers at the Academy at that time. His contemporaries included York Bowen, Benjamin Dale, Felix Swinstead, Paul Corder, Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer, and a little later Harriet Cohen, all piano pupils of Tobias Matthay.

Bax's early music arose from improvisation at the piano, and from playing the latest orchestral scores at the keyboard. He became celebrated for his ability to read orchestral full scores at sight. These were not necessarily solo sessions, and many scores were explored at two pianos, and with York Bowen he accompanied the opera class. The harmony and colouristic textures which he absorbed there must then have sounded startlingly modern when played on the piano. He soaked up every influence he came upon at concerts at London's still new Queen's Hall where Henry Wood's taste for the latest Russian novelty was meat and drink to Bax. When the pianist Arthur Alexander arrived from New Zealand to study at the Academy they became great friends. Bax and Alexander are reported to have played through all the Glazunov 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 did not attempt to make a career as a concert pianist, and having a private income he never found himself having to earn a fee. Indeed when he was asked to stand in to play modern music when more established figures cried off, he was not a little irritated that he was never paid. In this capacity we find him playing for both Debussy and Schoenberg. In February 1909 he accompanied Debussy songs in the composer's presence, and in January 1914 he did the same for Schoenberg when the booked pianist withdrew at the last minute. During the First World War Bax appeared on the concert platform on several occasions with his girl-friend Harriet Cohen in his 'Irish Tone-Poem' Moy Mell. Bax's well-known liaison with the pianist Harriet Cohen started late in 1914 and many of his short piano pieces were dedicated to her, though there was rivalry between Harriet ('Tania' to her circle) and Myra Hess in the playing of Bax's piano music, and in fact Myra Hess and Irene Sharrer had given the première of Moy Mell in December 1916. During the 1920s Bax appeared from time to time in his own music, and 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 of those performances.

Bax wrote his Festival Overture in October 1909, six months before he went to Russia, and he orchestrated it in Ireland in March 1911 while he was on his honeymoon. It was first performed at a Balfour Gardiner concert in Queen's Hall in March 1912, conducted by Gardiner to whom Bax dedicated it. It was revised in November 1918, but this two-piano version is of the original version, which was probably made for Balfour Gardiner's rehearsals.

In the 1970s the pianist Vivian Langrish helped me with information for my biography of Bax. Purely by chance I once met him on the tube and he showed me this two-piano version of the Festival Overture, which he just happened to have in his music case. There were two manuscript copies and he thrust one of them into my hand: 'You'd better borrow this' he said – 'it's quite safe, I have the other copy'. Soon after Langrish died and his copy of the Festival Overture was never found, and mine was used for the BBC première of the piece in August 1983 broadcast in December that year for the Bax centenary.

Bax evokes the festival spirit in a riotous mood. It is 'somewhat akin', said Bax, 'to that of a Continental carnival'. He went on: 'there is no "realism" in the piece, however, the composer being content to suggest the atmosphere of Bohemian revel in terms of purely absolute music.' In the middle section Bax introduces a third theme which in his note for the first performance he described as 'of a more serious and sustained character' and it reappears towards the end, as Bax said 'in still broader and more triumphant guise'. The critic Edward J. Dent rather superciliously remarked 'Bax is a clever brat; but what has a born Cockney to do with Celtic Twilights? … His Bohemian overture was like Hampstead people in a Soho restaurant.' Shorn of its orchestral colouring, to this writer it exhibits an unexpected resemblance to Percy Grainger at his most energetic.

The Poisoned Fountain was another of the works Bax wrote for Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson in the 1920s. It was first performed by them in June 1928. A composer who often evoked the sea in his music, Bax was good at watery textures, in such works as Winter Waters (Naxos 8.557592), Nereid (Naxos 8.557439) and a host of sea-pieces. At the outset Bax instructs his pianos to play quite independently of each other and the very quiet endless flow of repeated piano figuration is evocative of flowing water. The second piano has a dramatic motif which becomes menacing at a big climax. Something is happening but Bax gives us no idea of the programmatic basis of the music. Graham Parlett has convincingly suggested the fountain is the Secret Well of Segais, the source of knowledge in Irish mythology.

Bax subtitles the evocative Moy Mell (The Happy Plain) 'An Irish Tone-Poem'. The subtitle is also given as 'the pleasant plain' and the title as the Irish 'Magh Mell'. In an autobiographical radio talk Bax summarised his programmatic sources for this piece. 'The poetry and prose of Yeats introduced me to the Irish Faery hierarchy … there were three different earthly paradises as conceived by the ancient Gael … the Hollow Hill …Hy-Brazil or the land of eternal youth … and Moy Mell – the happy plain. I wrote tone poems about all these three pagan places of bliss.' It opens with a typical Baxian Celtic melodic line and Bax's impressionistic accompanying textures which are soon heard are very much orchestral manqué. The music builds to an evocative climax and then fades into a long sunset.

The Sonata for Two Pianos was the biggest piece Bax produced for the Bartlett-Robertson duo. It was written between Winter Legends for piano and orchestra and the Third Symphony (Naxos 8.553608), and was first heard in London on 10 December 1929. Chosen as one of the British works for the 1930 ISCM Festival in Liège its 'très prudent modernisme' was noted by a French critic, but audiences across American responded warmly when Bax's pianists took it there.

At the beginning of the first movement Bax has written 'In a languorous sunstained mood'. Queries have been raised as to whether this is but a misprint for 'sustained', but surprisingly this seems to be what Bax intended. When pressed by Rae Robertson for some programmatic background for the American tour Bax told him that the first movement 'reflects the coming of spring' and 'the sea in its many varieties of mood'. The slow movement is formally similar to some of the orchestral tone poems, and evokes an ancient Celtic world in a striking parallel with Bax's orchestral The Garden of Fand (Naxos 8.557599). 'From some distant faery heaven across the sea', said Robertson, 'a faint sound of unearthly music, hardly distinguishable from the sea-murmur which accompanies it … the sea becomes more turbulent … till at last it seems to break into a great wave, then once again comes the faery melody, which slowly dies away into silence'. The finale is a wild dance and at the end the opening of the first movement reappears in a triumphant climax: spring has indeed arrived in all its glory.

The Devil That Tempted St Anthony is another of the works Bax arranged for the Robertsons in the late 1920s, and it was first performed by them in June 1928. The piano solo original does not survive but from contemporary catalogues we guess it was probably written just after the First World War. Within a few years several works appeared on this theme, notably Hindemith's Mathis der Maler symphony, a musical evocation of Matthias Grünewald's altar-piece at Colmar in Alsace. Bax's friend Cecil Gray also wrote an opera The Temptation of St Anthony, after Flaubert. Graham Parlett reminds us that the subject was 'St Anthony the Abbot, whom the Devil's temptations failed to deflect from the path of righteousness'.

We also need to remember that Bax was also obsessed with landscape. A number of later orchestral scores seem to have originated in titles sketched in piano score during the couple of years before the First World War. These include his orchestral tone poems Nympholept (Naxos 8.555343), November Woods (8.557599) and The Garden of Fand. Another was Red Autumn, which Bax eventually arranged for two pianos under pressure to produce another piece for Bartlett and Robertson, but he might well have laid it out for orchestra, and the recent idiomatic scoring by Graham Parlett has made clear its essential character as another nature evocation in the style of November Woods. The red leaves were seen in the Chilterns, possibly near Amersham.

Most of Bax's two piano music was written in the late 1920s for the husband and wife piano duet team of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. Dated May 1927, Hardanger, a short encore piece, was first performed by them in February 1929. Bax writes 'with acknowledgements to Grieg' on the score, and in one letter refers to it as his piece of Grieg. In it Bax emulates the style of Grieg's folk-style piano music, the title referring to the area around Bergen where Grieg had lived, and the wild country of the Hardanger-Vidde.

Lewis Foreman © 2007


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