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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, May 2009

Arnold Bax (1883–1953) is a composer whose chamber music, quite frankly, has not made as strong an impression on me as have his large-scaled tone poems and symphonic works. His clutch of sonatas for violin and piano (the others are taken up by these same players on a companion Naxos disc, 8.570094) is no exception; and judging by the lack of enthusiasm violinists have shown in them as evidenced by the paucity of recordings, apparently I am not alone.

This new release, however, is unique in that it offers up the E-Major Sonata in its twice revised 1920 and 1945 version, along with the world premiere recording of Bax’s original 1910 second and third movements that he subsequently jettisoned. The work opens in that typical English, Celtic-flavored pastoral style that often colors the music of other composers that have, fairly or unfairly, been labeled or libeled as belonging to the “cow and pasture” school of English pastoralists, such as Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Gurney, and Delius. But the mood doesn’t last long; for it is soon overtaken by music of a more restless and ruffled nature. The program note tells us that the Sonata was inspired by a passionate but short-lived love affair between Bax and a Ukrainian girl named Natalia Skarginska in the winter of 1909–10. If so, the resulting score is closer to Janáček’s angst-ridden, desperate, and despairing love twitchings than it is to, say, Elgar’s effusive, romantic outpourings. The two movements Bax wrote to replace the Sonata’s second and third movements are not reworkings of the original material, but entirely new.

The Sonata No. 3 dates from 1927, and contains music of an entirely different character. I am not familiar enough with Bax’s biography to know if he ever met or was familiar with the work of Bartók, or vice-versa. But much of the concluding Allegro molto movement of this two-movement sonata exhibits both the signature of a Hungarian folk dance and the driving rhythmic propulsion heard in many of Bartók’s works. The question is which came first, or who was the originator and who the imitator? Of the two sonatas on the disc, the No. 3 strikes me as the more musically interesting, the more tightly constructed, and the more effective. The No. 1, whether in its revised form or with its original movements restored, comes across, to me at least, as an exercise in having not much to say but in saying it anyway, and at great a length; it rambles on for 32 minutes.

Technically, these are challenging scores to play; and together Laurence Jackson and Ashley Wass, without making them sound easy, manage not to make them sound effortful. In other words, they’ve taken the time to learn them well, and to present them with professional polish and committed sounding playing. Perhaps further listening will change my impression, but for now these sonatas are not likely to show up on my list of favorite works for violin and piano. Recommended, nonetheless, for excellent performances and to those Bax fans who might wish to explore beyond his more widely recorded orchestral output.

Penguin Guide, January 2009

Bax’s writing for the violin is always grateful and these two artists are persuasive and eloquent interpreters. As an appendix Laurence Jackson and Ashley Wass give us the original second and third movements of the First Sonata, as well as the later and more personal Third from 1927.

American Record Guide, June 2007

Arnold Bax's violin sonatas inhabit the outskirts of standard repertory territory. They are pleasant to listen to and skillfully composed, but they aren't grand statements like the sonatas Brahms, Franck, or Prokofieff, whose finest sonatas had autobiographical inspiration.

While Bax's Sonata 1 started out in 1910 as a testament to his love for the Ukrainian beauty Natalia Skarginski, he discarded the last two movements and replaced them in 1915 with movements of very different character from the originals. Only I preserves the original inspiration. This release contains, we are told, the world premiere recording of the original movements. I was struck by the strong character of the original II, which bears the tempo marking "slow and somber" as opposed to the "Allegro vivace – poco piu lento" of the published middle movement. While the replacement II is brilliantly composed and energetic, the original II, while not so skillfully written, has a striking, dirge-like theme of great character. It was clearly meant to be the centerpiece of the sonata. The whole movement gives the impression that the composer's heart was guiding him more than his brain. The biggest disappointment is the replacement III, which is mellifluous and occasionally brilliant but largely spineless. The original III is more exuberant, even sometimes ecstatic. While the original II doesn't exhibit the compositional virtuosity of the published II, it gave the sonata some gravity it now lacks. I am perfectly happy with the original III. I feel that if Bax had not second-guessed himself, this would be a sonata with more character, especially the way it is knitted together by quotations of the main theme of I in the later movements.

I'm not suggesting that the restored original sonata is a masterpiece, but I am saying that the lack of boldness and the indirection of Bax's phrases, like Delius's, keep him from the top tier of composers. There is a reticence in his art that, while charming, prevents it from attaining monumentality. Bax had a fine theme in the original II, and if he had continued to write themes like that and had learned to properly develop them, he might have become a greater artist.

Sonata 3, only two movements long, was written in 1927. It is not nearly as personal as Sonata 1, but instead has a strongly Irish character, especially in II. In fact, much of II sounds so modern Bax comes across as a sort of Celtic Bartok. II especially is brilliant.

I have heard these sonatas before in recordings by Robert Gibbs and Mary Mei-Loc Wu (Sept/Oct 2001, July/Aug 2002). Laurence Jackson is a far superior violinist to Gibbs and has a tonally superior instrument, a Vuillaume from around 1850. Ashley Wass is at least as good as Wu, and the recording is closer and more present. This recording is clearly superior.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, February 2007

The Bax revival continues with two welcome releases from Naxos as part of their 20th Century British Music series. They will delight the ever-growing ranks of lovers of neglected English chamber music.

Bax was highly productive in the genre of the violin sonata as he wrote five between the years 1901 and 1945 and published three of them. On the first disc is the three movement Violin Sonata No.1 in E major that Bax composed between 1910-15 and revised both in 1920 and in 1945. It is documented that the Sonata No.1 was inspired by the composer’s infatuation with a Ukrainian girl named Natalia Skarginska. Bax must have been dissatisfied with the second and third movements of the score as Winifred Smith and Myra Hess only performed the first movement at the Steinway Hall, London in 1914. In 1915 Bax wrote new second and third movements. Bax on piano together with violinists Paul Kochanski and Bessie Rawlins performed revised versions of the 1915 score in London but we are not told about the first performance of the 1945 version that is recorded here in a slightly cut form.

The opening pages of the Moderato tempo convey a strong sense of the sound-world of Ravel with a few hints of Debussy-like impressionism. The soaring emotion of this absorbing music must undoubtedly be a passionate declaration of love. Under Jackson and Wass the central Allegro vivace - poco piu lento has a relentless yearning and pleading quality that feels almost stifling. Although not always the case in violin sonatas, Bax’s writing certainly gives the piano part parity with the violin. In the final movement marked Moderato tempo - smooth and serene the duo evokes an unsettled mood of searching and pining. The quiet conclusion doesn’t really provide a satisfactory resolution to the intense emotional events we have experienced.

Evidently for the first time on a recording we hear a performance of the original 1910 second and third movements of the Sonata No.1 in E major that the composer discarded. These, incidentally, are longer than the movements that replaced them.

Jackson and Wass reveal the fascinating original second movement, marked slow and sombre, as containing an abundance of tension of an almost claustrophobic nature. A more calming section from 1:47 provides a welcome respite from what has gone before to develop between 2:53-3:15 a slightly sinister tone. At 3:45 an attractive dance-like passage feels restrained as if needing to be allowed to speed-up. The duo quicken the tempo and increase the intensity at 8:15-8:45 in an episode of raw emotion. The music gradually slows leaving an air of mystery to conclude the movement. Marked Allegro molto vivace the robust and galloping original third movement of the E major Sonata is fiery, here almost reckless in character. From 2:20 the pace slows and begins to exude a sultry moodiness. At 4:44 the galloping spirit makes several attempts to return but is always thwarted. The straining leash is finally broken by the duo at 6:01 with the music making a headlong dash for freedom. From 7:45 a more relaxed mood arrives until 9:11 when a frenzied intensity concludes the movement.

Bax wrote his dual movement Violin Sonata No. 3 in 1927. The score was first performed by Bax and the violinist Emil Telmanyi in London in 1929. In the Moderato opening Jackson and Wass provide an initial impression of the sound-world of Elgar blended with hints of Delius. This has a slightly ruminative nature and one senses that Bax might have been apprehensive over the anticipation of an exciting event. I loved the way the duo play the broad expressive sweep of the attractive melodies whilst maintaining a relative restraint. The movement closes with an exceptionally lovely violin passage from 7:50. In the Final movement marked Allegro molto the players convey a pulsating yet dark mood of deep foreboding as if Bax was describing a stormy winter night. At 2:42-3:07 the duo really quicken the pace to one of fiery aggression. One welcomes the extended peaceful interlude of rich autumnal shades between 3:56-7:00. As the music becomes increasingly tormented in character Jackson and Wass bring the work to an unsettling close.

There is some competition in the catalogues for these Bax violin sonatas, although, I am not personally familiar with any of them. There are accounts from violinist Erich Gruenberg and John McCabe who have recorded the Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 on Chandos CHAN8845; from violinist Robert Gibbs and Mary Mei-Loc Wu with the Violin Sonatas Nos. 2, 3 & 4 on ASV CDDCA1098 who have also recorded the Violin Sonata No. 1 and Violin Sonata in G minor (in one movement) on ASV CDDCA1127 and also from violinist Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe playing the Violin Sonata No. 2 on GMNC 0113.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, November 2006

A Bax bulls eye from Jackson and Wass, who give of their commanding best

A glance at Graham Parlett's invaluable catalogue of Bax's music (OUP: 1999) reveals that the first of the composer's three numbered violin sonatas (a passionate outpouring from 1910 fanned by the embers of a love affair with a Ukrainian girl by the name of Natalie Skarginska) exists in no fewer than four versions. Bax's final revision dates from 1945 but this new Naxos collection includes a debut on disc for the original second and third movements that Bax jettisoned in 1915 when he overhauled the sonata for the first time.

In a letter to the violinist May Harrison, the composer referred to the "old slow movement, as being rather too juvenile for public performance", but as a dyed-in-the-wool fan I must say I found it deeply touching to experience Bax's affecting and exuberant first thoughts, especially when played with such authority and rapt intuition as here.

As for the sonata proper, Laurence Jackson and Ashley Wass mastermind the most exquisitely poised and insightful interpretation I've yet encountered; never have I been made so aware of the links with Szymanowski's Myths and First Concerto (a reminder that the violin part of all three works was edited by the great Polish virtuoso Pawel Kochanski).

Similarly, the two-movement Third Sonata of 1927 receives exceptionally persuasive and articulate treatment: the first movement's songful second subject can seldom have sounded more bewitching, and the toe-tapping Irish revelry in the finale is projected with thrilling abandon by these classy performers (their softer-spoken ASV rivals don't stoke the fires to anything like the same degree).

The Potton Hall recording is absolutely first-rate to match and, as should be abundantly clear by now, this is a superlative issue; indeed, I'm already itching to hear what Jackson and Wass will make of the magnificently mean and moody Second Sonata. Andrew Achenbach

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