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Em Marshall
MusicWeb International, April 2007

This truly delightful disc from Naxos contains a broad spectrum of chamber music by Arnold Bax. They range from works written when he was a student at the Royal Academy of Music - and which he later suppressed - to the last chamber piece he composed (in 1946), the Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano in B flat, with which the disc opens.

The Trio was written for the Harry Isaacs piano trio, who had asked Bax to compose something for their forthcoming Wigmore concert. Bax initially refused, saying that the medium of piano trio was too hard, then changed his mind. This is an innovative and unusual piece, wonderfully characterful and with hints of Peter Warlock and shades of jazz in some of the harmonies and rhythms. The opening, quite passionate, Allegro con brio, is followed by a gentle and romantic second movement Adagio (alia breve) con moto and the work concludes with a lively and slightly more discordant Tempo moderato e molto ritmico.

The ensuing Clarinet Sonata was composed in 1934, and dedicated to Hugh Prew, a fellow player in Bax’s brother’s cricket team and an amateur clarinetist. It is an evocative and interesting work, and sensitively performed.

The Folk Tale is deeply romantic and evocative, nostalgic and wistful, and contains some radiant and passionate playing from cellist Alice Neary. It was premiered, only a few weeks after completion, by Bax himself with Salmond - who also gave the premiere of Elgar’s cello concerto - at the Wigmore Hall. Bax later dedicated the work to Salmond.

Back to the clarinet with the next piece, for the second clarinet sonata on this disc, written in 1901. This is another charming, romantic work, expressively performed. Although this clarinet sonata is in one movement, the Romance that follows could have been intended as a second movement. The Romance is an impassioned little piece that opens and ends gently.

The disc concludes with the Trio in One Movement, which was scored for piano, violin and viola – probably due to the influence of Lionel Tertis, but Bax instructed that the viola part can be played on clarinet. This fantastic piece was dedicated to the Irish composer Rowan-Hamilton. It contains strong hints of Irish folk music, and is full of vigorous joy and the vibrancy of life, brought out well in this outstanding performance.

The Gould Piano Trio’s playing is confident, assured, characterful and sensitive, and they bring out the tremendous sense of fun in these works. Although there are other - also excellent - recordings of these works, at a budget price this disc, where a good combination of brilliant and beautiful works are so well-played, can’t be beaten.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, December 2006

This valuable release combines three mature Bax standards (to the extent that any Bax chamber music is "standard") with three youthful one-movement pieces plausibly advertised as first recordings: two clarinet works from 1901 (possibly intended as movements in a larger structure) and a substantial 1906 Trio for piano, viola, and cello, performed here in its composer-authorized alternative with clarinet substituting for viola. The Sonata and Romance sound more like Brahms than Bax; but even they have brief flashes of moody disorientation that look ahead to Bax's more characteristic music- a disorientation that's more evident still in the prismatic (one might even say chaotic) Trio, a work that lurches from folk-tinted innocence to hallucinatory visions (one spot sounds a bit like a fractured "Yankee Doodle") to expressions of nearly Gershwinesque cheek, all swept aside by a slightly demented final dance. All three are dotted with a caressing lyricism (the second theme of the Sonata is especially fetching)-and all three, whatever their marks of inexperience, are well worth hearing.

Robert Plane is a much-admired clarinetist, and he plays with fluency and conviction. Perhaps too much conviction-he's consistently loud, sometimes squawky in his higher registers (a particular problem in the second movement of the more familiar D-Major Sonata), and insufficiently attentive to sweetness and introspection. Still, you're not likely to hear the early music better played any time soon. He's well supported by the players collectively known as the "Gould Trio"- who, on their own, provide a knowing performance of the late Piano Trio in B flat (they're especially good at communicating the flashes of darkness in the finale without losing momentum) and an appropriately intense reading of the misleadingly titled Folk-Tale for cello and piano. Good sound, knowledgeable notes by Lewis Foreman. Warmly recommended.

Tony Haywood
MusicWeb International, September 2006

Naxos’s commitment to English music continues with this typically well-filled and intelligently programmed disc of Bax chamber music, coupling familiar and unfamiliar works. Indeed, three of the pieces are world premiere recordings and add that bit of extra spice to an already attractive selection of music.

The disc works in reverse order, as it were, opening with the composer’s final chamber offering. The very fine Piano Trio in B flat is full of mature Bax fingerprints, the sort that can be heard in other works of this period. It’s a generally warm and lyrical piece, reminiscent in places of Dvorak, whose chamber music Bax admired. The first movement’s energy, derived mainly from the persistent Scotch snap rhythm, is countered with a broad, nostalgic slow movement that these players do full justice to with lovely phrasing and a passionate central climax. The quicksilver finale, with its virtuosic piano writing and dry humour, is cheekily despatched, Ben Frith enjoying himself all the way.

The mature Clarinet Sonata of 1934 has proved to be one of Bax’s most enduring and popular chamber works. Premiered by Frederick Thurston and Harriet Cohen, there are a number of fine version already in the catalogue, notably those by Emma Johnson and Michael Collins. Robert Plane, whose Naxos Finzi disc is one of my favourites, is well up there with the best and he strikes a wonderfully natural rapport with Frith. The many subtleties in the piece are well realized, especially the chromatic, almost Scriabin-like harmonic meanderings in the second movement. Plane’s tone is beautifully graded and the whole performance oozes class and distinction.

Next up is the surprisingly powerful 8-minute Folk Tale for cello and piano of 1918, dedicated to Felix Salmond and first performed by him with the composer at the piano. The cello writing is masterly and the mood by turns wistful, brooding and elegiac, all well conveyed in Alice Neary’s supple cello playing.

The three ‘discovered’ works come from Bax’s student days and are certainly delightful finds, even if none of them are earth shattering. The early Clarinet Sonata in E from 1901 is now only in a one-movement form and is solidly constructed is a very Brahmsian mould. The Romance of the same year never really loses those same European origins but the later one-movement Clarinet Trio shows a distinctive voice emerging from the Debussian haze. Celtic folk elements are discernible but the writing, especially the muscular piano part, is delightful and the piece is undoubtedly well worth hearing, especially in such an elegant and stylish performance as here.

The recording quality is typical Potton Hall, warm, detailed and well balanced and the liner notes by Lewis Foreman (who else?) very informative, even if the music is discussed in chronological order of composition, the opposite of the playing order on the disc. All in all, a Bax chamber recital to cherish.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, August 2006

Bax’s engaging Clarinet Sonata of 1934 has been lucky on disc, with distinguished versions from Janet Hilton, Emma Johnson and Michael Collins happily still adorning the catalogue.  Robert Plane’s irreproachably alert and stylish account with Benjamin Frith leaves a similarly delightful impression.  Plane’s timbre could hardly be more alluring and he strikes up a tangible rapport with Frith.  The pleasures continue with the 1945-46 Piano Trio, Bax’s final chamber offering, which finds him at his most economical and relaxed.  It gets a first-rate performance from the Gould Trio, who bring plenty of bite and sparkle to the rhythmically buoyant finale.  In the wistful and brooding Folk-Tale (first performed in 1918) Alice Neary and Frith do full justice to what is an unexpectedly powerful eight-minute essay.

But what makes this generously timed Naxos CD essential listening are three world premiere recordings. Both the one-movement Sonata in E and Romance for clarinet and piano date from 1901 (Bax’s first year at the Royal Academy) and may well have been conceived as parts of a larger work. The 1906 ‘Trio in one movement for piano, violin and viola’ was the first extended score Bax deemed worthy for publication, a decision he later regretted (he described it as a ‘derivative and formless farrago’); it is performed here with the viola part taken by the clarinet, an option sanctioned by the composer.

Neither of the clarinet pieces is likely to set the world alight, whereas the fluent and predominantly extrovert 17-minute Trio contains tantalizing glimpses of greater achievement to come. Enthusiasts can rest assured that these admirably agile and idiomatic performers give Bax’s youthful inspiration every chance to shine; indeed, it’s impossible imagine a more convincing account of the Trio.

Victor Carr Jr, July 2006

The works on this collection cover pretty much the entire span of Bax's composing career. The Clarinet Sonata in E and the Romance are among Bax's earliest (around 1901) published compositions, and both display the strong influence of Brahms. Five years later came the one-movement Trio where Bax's emerging style had by now expanded to reflect his immersion in the music of Scriabin and Debussy. Even so, there are many hints of the composer's mature style in this rhapsodic work, which originally was scored for piano, violin, and viola. Bax's well-considered revision provides ample opportunities for clarinetist Robert Plane, who takes to the part with discernible relish, playing with gorgeous tone and rhythmic acuity throughout--just as he does in the earlier Sonata and Romance.

The D major Clarinet Sonata (1934) is a work of Bax's full maturity, easily recognizable by its distinctive harmonic language, rhythmic sense, and frequently winsome mood--this last which Plane captures perfectly in his free-flowing rendition. The mood turns elegiac for the Folk-Tale, which features beautiful and quite moving writing for cello and piano, masterfully conveyed by Alice Neary and Benjamin Frith. Finally, Bax's 1945 Piano Trio in B-flat proved to be his last chamber work. This is now the composer we know from the symphonies--indeed, the first movement, with its persistent jig-rhythm and fast-slow-fast formal plan has much in common with Bax's Symphony No. 4. It's a marvelous work that relaxes for a languorous middle movement, then perks up again with a stimulating 5/8 finale. The Gould Piano Trio's superlative performance crowns this most enjoyable disc, which includes the added benefit of excellent recorded sound. Bax fans, this one's for you.

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