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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The Viola Sonata comes from 1922 and the Legend seven years later. The other pieces are both early. All are beautifully played and very well recorded.

Em Marshall
MusicWeb International, March 2008

Bax is perhaps best known for his seven symphonies and rather epic tone poems, yet he also composed a good deal of chamber music. All of Bax’s viola works were written for the great violist Lionel Tertis, who was at that time (the early twentieth century), encouraging composers of the day to write more works for the viola. It was an instrument that rather took an – undeserved - back seat as far as solo works were concerned.

This disc opens with the Viola Sonata. It dates from 1922, a year after Bax had composed a Concerto, later re-named Phantasy, for viola - again, for Tertis. The Sonata was given its première in the Aeolian Hall in London with Tertis and Bax. Here, Martin Outram and Julian Rolton give a sympathetic performance of a complex work. Being fairly virtuosic in parts, with a frenzied scherzo and an atmospheric last movement, the piece enables the performers to demonstrate not just their understanding and love of the music, but also their technical abilities, which they do superbly.

Bax’s Concert Piece was composed in 1904. The young composer was obsessed with Ireland and everything Irish, and commented of this work “It will be observed that a Celtic element predominates, free use being made of the flattened seventh, the falling intervals of the pentatonic scale and other features peculiar to Irish folk music." Bax himself again gave the first performance later that same year, with Tertis, in the Aeolian Hall. With its wonderful combination of manic energy and lyricism, both the work, and the performance on this disc are spirited.

The Legend was Bax’s last completed work for viola. It is an introspective piece with some dark and severe moments but also some lighter episodes – here, again, beautifully played.

The Trio in One Movement concludes the disc. It is, like the Concert Piece, an early work, probably dating from 1906. Martin Outram and Julian Rolton are joined by Laurence Jackson on violin, in a lively performance of an exuberant work.

There is some really lovely - and sometimes unusual - music here, given top-class performances.

American Record Guide, January 2008

All these works are for the viola or include it. Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was one of the earliest major English composers to develop an association with Lionel Tertis, the father of modern viola playing. The earliest work here is the Concert Piece from 1904. While it is a youthful work, it has plenty of verve and sounds very assured and modern for its time. Indeed, it sounds more modern than the nearly contemporary, and more famous, Concert Piece by George Enesco.

The next work chronologically is the trio. It is a good piece, but I find the works for viola and piano more interesting. The centerpiece is the wonderful Viola Sonata of 1922. I has a wonderfully dreamy theme that opens and closes the movement, II is savage (not Stravinsky savage, but British savage), and III has a heavy, tragic main theme but ends with the dreamy theme of I. The Legend of 1929 also has a predominantly dark, heavy mood and is a very effective character piece.

Martin Outram is a competent violist with the technical shortcoming that he cannot vibrate on certain difficult notes. This is a common problem for violists, but I don't like it in a soloist. Another problem is that his tone has a woolly quality. I don't know if he or his instrument is the source of the problem. He plays a viola made by Hieronymus Amati in 1628. All the other violas by this maker that I've heard have sounded magnificent. He does play in tune, and his musicianship is quite good, though not up to William Primrose's in his recording of the Viola Sonata with Bax's mistress Harriet Cohen at the piano from 1937. That recording is simply definitive, better than the recording by Bax and Tertis from a few years earlier, and shows everything that can be done on the viola with tone color, vibrato, attack—you name it. If you're interested in Bax's viola music, this is not a bad acquisition given the price, but I would like to hear this music played by a violist with better technique and tone.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, February 2007

This Naxos disc contains welcome recordings of four of Bax’s chamber works for viola. All four scores were composed specifically with the distinguished and influential British violist Lionel Tertis in mind.

The key work on this release is the three movement Sonata for Viola and Piano. Bax this in 1922 and it was first performed the same year by Tertis at the Aeolian Hall in London. Acknowledged by many as Bax’s finest chamber score it seems as if the composer is bidding farewell to the mythological Celtic dreamland of his formative years. In the hands of violist Martin Outram and pianist Julian Rolton the opening Molto moderato - Allegro is languid and yearning, often reflective with a dark and rich splendour. The music felt evocative of the breathtaking beauty of a winter scene with an icy expanse of lake in a snow-clad valley. The central movement is a complete contrast with its mainly unsettling mood of torment and agitation. At 5:36-6:05 the duo swiftly increase the pace like a steam locomotive hurtling down a track. The wistful nature of the closing Molto lento is in many ways similar in character to the opening movement. The mood is broken at 3:22-4:20 with an uneasy episode of harrowing turbulence that Outram and Rolton execute magnificently. From 4:23 the stormy waters suddenly become calm and the movement drifts to its close with brooding nostalgia. This is a magnificent performance.

It is a number of years since I heard a recording of the commanding 1937 version of the Viola Sonata from violist William Primrose and Harriet Cohen. I understand that their account forms part of the disc titled ‘William Primrose’ on the Pearl label, Gemm 9453; as part of the ‘William Primrose Collection - Volume 1’ on Doremi DHR 7708 and I note also on Dutton CDBP 9751. There is, I believe, an account played by Bax himself and violist Lionel Tertis on a disc titled ‘Tertis plays Bax’ on Pearl, Gemm 9918 and also as part of the set ‘Lionel Tertis, The Complete Columbia Recordings 1924-1933’ on Biddulph 82016. A more recent account, that was generally well received, is the 2002 Baton Rouge recording from violist Doris Lederer and Jane Coop on Centaur CRC2660.

The Concert Piece for Viola and Piano was premiered by Tertis in 1904 at the Aeolian Hall in London. The work opens with a contemporary feel but soon reverts to Bax’s more familiar Celtic fantasy world with the liberal use of Irish folk melodies, such as at 6:43. The dreamy passages at 7:51-9:20 and 11:01-12:22 present Bax at his most characteristically romantic.

Written in 1929 following a commission from the famous American chamber music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge the Legend for Viola and Piano was also premiered by Tertis at the Aeolian Hall in London. Here we encounter the familiar pattern of dreamlike nostalgia combined with episodes of unsettling rancour. The Celtic folk-like elements are not as prominent here as in scores such as the Concert Piece for Viola and Piano.

The Trio in One Movement for Piano, Violin and Viola, Op. 4 was composed around 1906 when Bax was in his early twenties. I was immediately struck by the highly rhythmic character of the score, especially the prominent and energetic piano writing. Certainly not the most remarkable of Bax’s chamber scores this worthwhile Trio in One Movement contains many fascinating passages and provides an early insight into his highly individual style. Here Martin Outram and Julian Rolton are joined by violinist Laurence Jackson who collectively contribute strongly and passionately being impressively attuned to the spirit of the score.

The Bax discs have been well recorded by the Naxos engineers with a clear, cool and well balanced sound quality. Another advantage is the high quality booklet notes from Lewis Foreman.

The general neglect of the vast majority of Bax’s chamber output is a loss to music lovers everywhere. With performances as good as these it remains a puzzle why such scores are not heard far more often. Next month I am attending a recital by Peter Cropper and Martin Roscoe of four Beethoven violin sonatas. As great as Beethoven’s music undoubtedly is, a contrasting and less familiar sonata included in such a programme, from say, Bax or one of his contemporaries would make a refreshing change. These Naxos releases [8.5575 and 8.557784] are to be treasured and not just by Bax admirers.

Classic FM, February 2007

Bax wrote these works for the viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis; the Viola Sonata stands out - receiving a grandstanding performance.

Terry Barfoot
MusicWeb International, January 2007

Like so many composers, Sir Arnold Bax is known by only a fragment of his large output of music. Chief among the neglected areas of his achievement is the chamber music, which is certainly less frequently performed and recorded than his richly romantic orchestral scores.

Therefore it is good to find these viola pieces coupled in an appealing budget release from Naxos, pleasingly recorded by a particular talented player and his colleagues. Bax enjoyed an enduring friendship with the great Lionel Tertis (subject of a recently published biography by John White), and the substantial Sonata of 1922 is one of his finest compositions in any genre. The opening makes an arresting impression, at once atmospheric and expressive, while the scherzo is particularly exciting rhythmically. Martin Outram plays with warm expressiveness and a suitably rich tone, while Julian Rolton on the piano is recorded in just the right balance of perspective.

There is no question that the Viola Sonata ranks as the most significant composition among those collected here, and it is worth the price of the disc on its own. Alternative recordings are not numerous, and the most interesting is probably from Biddulph (LAB 148, mono) by the legendary William Primrose, accompanied by Harriet Cohen, famous for her relationship with the composer. However, the historical interest needs to be offset against the distinct lack of bloom of the pre-war recording. Earlier still, the composer and Lionel Tertis recorded the piece in 1929, though their version has remained out of the catalogue for several years.

That same year of 1929 Bax composed the Legend for viola and piano, music of serious and nostalgic character which finds him at his most darkly expressive. The other items, the Concert Piece for viola and piano, and the Trio for violin, viola and piano, are both early works, written well before the First World War. The latter is the more substantial of the two, and must rate as one of the strongest compositions from this phase of Bax’s creative life.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, December 2006

It’s good to see the enthusiasm these days for Bax’s Viola sonata – in fact it’s good to see Naxos getting to grips with Bax’s chamber music with such avidity. The historic yardstick was always the Primrose-Cohen 78, now featuring in several CD incarnations, not least because the composer’s own performance with Lionel Tertis was not issued at the time and only surfaced on a Pearl LP. It’s to be heard now both on Pearl and Biddulph CDs.

This is all well and good but of course performers today are not necessarily beholden to the past, or to past performance practice. But it’s interesting to contrast such as Martin Outram and Julian Rolton with another fine pairing, the American-Canadian team of Doris Lederer and Jane Coop on Centaur CRC2660. Both Lederer and Outram are violists in well-established quartets. Outram plays in the Maggini, current masters of the British quartet muse, whilst Lederer was part of the unfortunately fractious Audobon. Lederer and Coop play with lean control and eloquence though their tempi and affiliations are reminiscent of the Primrose-Cohen approach. Outram and Rolton have clearly heard the Tertis-Bax recording. Their tempi are brisk, though not as brisk as the volcanic composer and his equally inspired string colleague. Nevertheless the tempi are fast enough to startle; most pairings prefer a more equable and elastic approach. I don’t, so I am entirely sympathetic to the new recording. Shaving two minutes off the Lederer-Coop first movement – just that one movement alone – makes a huge difference to the work, allowing the folkloric elements to burn brightly and with heart stopping intimacy.

So does depth of vibrato usage and colour. Outram’s tone is deeper, the vibrato wider than most of his competitors. Even so fine a pairing as Michael Ponder and John Alley on ENS123 must cede here and elsewhere. Whilst it would be good to have a transfer of the Forbes/Cassini account they don’t quite command the full colouristic spectrum as Outram and Rolton do, partly perhaps a recording phenomenon, as Forbes was of course an outstanding player. In terms of tone, balance, evocative projection of the slow finale, and technical security at speed this new release has a great deal to commend it. I wish more pairings would dare to take Bax at face value and drive through this sonata. I reject those criticisms that Bax sounds slipshod in his recording and that he and Tertis fail to explore the sonata with sufficient care - not so.

The Concert Piece has its share of folk elements. It’s very early Bax, written in 1904 for the composer and Tertis once more. I suspect that that violist would have swept through the lyric nostalgia with rather greater trenchancy but it seems only slightly overlong in this expert performance. In the Legend Outram and Rolton face competition in the shape of Colletti and Howard on Helios CDH 55085, an all-British viola disc. I thoroughly approve of the faster tempo adopted by the Naxos pairing though it must be conceded that Coletti phrases with glorious elegance. His vibrato is faster than Outram’s as well which imparts a greater frisson to his playing.

The Trio sees the duo joined by Laurence Jackson, also of the Maggini, who is recording the Bax violin sonatas for Naxos. Though it sits high for the viola, corporate sonority is maintained by these experienced players. Cast in one movement and written in 1906 it sports an open-air feel but isn’t yet distinctively Baxian. The rhapsodic style encourages some affectionate playing; flirtations with Dvorák can be felt here and there as well as with the salon. The best part is the Prestissimo finale, which swings with tremendous vitality.

I’d place the Outram-Rolton sonata recording high for its virility and refusal to engage spurious metrical displacements. The Trio is a youthful work but enjoyable and you must have the Legend in your Bax chamber arsenal in whatever recording. As a single disc viola selection you couldn’t do much better than this.

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