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Steven E. Ritter
Fanfare, November 2008

This second volume of sonatas by Arnold Bax sort of snuck up on me—the more I listened, the more I liked it, and then in the end I found myself considering it one of the top releases of the year.

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, February 2008

The ever-growing ranks of lovers of English chamber music will be in their element here. Released as part of the company’s 20th Century British Music series this second volume of Bax’s works for violin and piano is once again performed by violinist Laurence Jackson, and pianist Ashley Wass. I recently reviewed the winning first volume containing the first and third sonata on 8.557540 – a joy to hear. This was adouble review combined with a disc of Bax’s works for viola and piano on Naxos 8.557784.

The present disc opens with Bax’s Violin Sonata No.2 from 1915 a score contemporaneous with the orchestration of the Nympholept and preceding The Garden of Fand. It seems that Bax withheld the sonata for a few years before giving it considerable revision in 1920. After which it was premiered by the violinist Bessie Rawlins with Bax at the Wigmore Hall, London. The Sonatais cast in four distinct movements that are played continuously. This is probably Bax’s finest chamber score and although I attend numerous chamber recitals I have yet to see it programmed.

The movement is marked Slow and gloomy. Contrasting moods define this splendid movement and one notices the stamping piano part. At times I was reminded of the opening Modéré from Ravel’s Violin Sonata;a score composed over a decade later. There seems to be little emphasis on Slow and gloomy here. One minute Bax is communicating confidence, warmth and comfort, the next a switch to darkness and unease. The second movement bears the evocative title of The Grey Dancer in the Twilight. Bax described it as a, “dance of death”. For me the profusely optimistic and buoyant opening half of the movement has the feel of Gallic cafés. One notices the Dies Iræ motif but it does not predominate. From around 3:18 the mood shifts to one of aquatic mystery with a touch of apprehension.

Initially the third movement, marked Very broad and concentrated, evokes summer pastoral vistas with an episode of angst and tension between 2:15-2:57. Bax creates a fatiguing atmosphere radiant with nostalgic yearning for the happy carefree days of youth. Self-assured, forthright, often angry and brutal the final movement, marked Allegro feroce makes a welcome appearance after what has gone before. One notes the return of a passage of a watery quality from 1:44. Around 5:31 there is a distinct second half to the movement containing music of a rather ambiguous character. Here one cannot easily decide if the temperament is relaxing or if there is an underlying tension. In the Coda the score fades away placidly into the distance.

The Ballad for Violin and Piano was composed in 1916, the same year as his orchestral tone poem The Garden of Fand. The unsettling events of the Easter uprising of armed nationalists in Ireland may have been a major influence for the powerful single movement score. Dedicated to violinist Winifred Small it seems that that the Ballad was consigned to the drawer for in excess of a decade until Bax undertook revision in 1929. The Ballad could easily represent a squall at sea contrasted with the butterfly-like delicacy of a summer cornfield.

From 1915 the Legend for Violin and Piano is a substantial single movement work. This dark and unsettling score may well reflect Bax’s abhorrence at the mounting carnage of the Great War. Violinist Winifred Small and pianist Harriet Cohen performed the score in 1916 at the Aeolian Hall, London. The rocking introduction to the Legend serves as a harbinger of the unhurried and mournful disposition that permeates the music.

The Sonata in G minor composed in 1901 is from Bax’s early days as a student at the Royal Academy of Music. Designed as a single movement marked Allegro appassionato Bax dedicated the score to his then violinist girlfriend Gladys Lees, a fellow Academy student. Providing a fascinating insight into Bax’s fledgling composing activities the score has a dance-like opening that soon transforms into a concentrated movement of knotty tension.

The final work on the disc, the two movement Sonata in F major from 1928, is sometimes referred to as the fourth violin sonata. The sonata is more widely known in Bax’s 1930 reworking as a Nonet for flute, clarinet, oboe, harp, two violins, viola, cello and double-bass. Bax seems to have consigned the F major score to the drawer. Consequently it was not performed until 1983 for the centenary celebrations of Bax’s birth. The generally agreeable nature of the first movement Molto moderato predominates, however, one senses that sinister undercurrents are never far away. The temperament of the high-spirited Allegro gives way to a calmer and reflective section at 2:41-4:55. From point 5:47 the music takes on a slower, more disconcerting quality that peaceful fades away.

Throughout this Naxos disc the impressive Jackson-Wass duo let the music speak for itself with assured and perceptive playing of string and key. Their tone is refined and tuning faultless.

For Naxos the team of Walton and Thomason provide defect-free production. In addition the essay from Lewis Foreman is of a standard that all authors should aspire to in what is a most attractive release. Bax’s reputation can only gain enhancement from this superbly performed and recorded second volume of violin sonatas from Naxos.

Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, January 2008

Arnold Bax’s Second Violin Sonata, written in 1915 but revised and concentrated in 1920, is a far cry from the immediacy and exotic romanticism of his First. The woodland light and fairy dreaming have given way to reality and concerns about a world plunged into the horrors of the Great War. The principal motif, familiar from November Woods dominates the whole sonata. The opening movement, marked ‘Slow and Gloomy’ is anguished and despairing, with little relief from the violin’s sinking lines and passionate protests, and the piano’s doom-filled bass tread. “The Grey Dancer in the Twilight’ is Bax’s title for the second movement. Lewis Foreman states that it might also be called ‘The Dance of Death’. It is a waltz, bleached of joy - shades of Liszt’s Totentanz and Ravel’s La Valse. It comes to a full stop, in desolation, about half way through the movement to be followed by the violin’s melancholy statement of the main motif over piano arpeggios. The music eventually drags almost to a stop to merge into the third movement marked ‘Very broad and concentrated’. Here violin mourns and the piano writing seems to move in circles, turning in on itself as though lost and bewildered. The concluding movement marked ‘Allegro feroce’ is just that, for the most part. Bax seemingly shaking his fist in defiance at the madness consuming the world. Elsewhere the music escapes into a hoped for serenity, a nostalgic looking back to an ordered pre-war world. Jackson and Wass deliver a passionate, committed and finely shaded performance, the emotional impact of which is appreciated all the more on repeated hearings. Just what this darker, deeply-felt music richly deserves.

The other major work in this programme is the two-movement Sonata in F major completed in September 1928. Bax suppressed it during his lifetime because he soon afterwards re-scored it as his Nonet (January 1930). It was not performed in this form until the Bax centenary celebrations in 1983. This Sonata is, sunnier, more settled and serenade-like, yet there is, too, a discomforting edginess to some of its pages. Back to 1901 for Bax’s student work, the Allegro appassionato of the Sonata in G minor. It is an attractive piece, a confident and assertive work, passionate and romantic. It is not without wit, and was inspired by, and written for Bax’s Academy girlfriend Gladys Lees.

The Ballad for Violin and Piano begins very turbulently, the violin writing particularly agitated. This is Bax’s reaction to the tragedy of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. The music clearly reflects how these events must have affected the composer for he was passionately fond of all things Irish. Some of the people caught up in those terrible events were known personally to Bax – particularly Padraig Pearse who was one of those executed after the event. Balancing the turbulence is romantic reflective music with, again, some waltz measures. Legend for Violin and Piano from 1915 is said to have reflected the first months of the Great War and is elegiac in character. In the main the music does not suggest the horrors of war, apart from passages like the piano’s final pounding chords. Bax prefers to mourn, in some quite lovely pages, the passing of an era.

Committed and thoughtful performances of some of Bax’s most deeply-felt music concerned with the horrors of World War I and the tragic events of the Easter Uprising in Dublin.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, January 2008

Cast in four linked movements and held together by a motto theme which also appears in the 1917 tone-poem November Woods, Bax's storm-tossed Second Violin Sonata was conceived during the summer of 1915 at a time of great personal upheaval for the 31-year-old composer and comprehensively overhauled six years later. Be it in the seductive sway of the second movement (a ghostly waltz enigmatically entitled "The Grey Dancer in the Twilight") or hair-raising final climax prior to the ecstatically serene epilogue, these dashingly poised newcomers give of their considerable best, with CBSO leader Laurence Jackson formidably secure in the solo part's more scarily vertiginous exploits. On reflection, Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe do evince the greater familiarity, affection and tender compassion in their admirable 1999 account (GMN, 3/01 -nla- and I prefer the more rounded tone, as recorded, of Little's 1757 Guadagnini), but no one coming to this music for the first time will be left unstirred by it's piercing beauty, urgency of expression and vaulting ambition.

In any case, what lifts this collection into the indispensable category are the spellbinding performances (all far more arresting than those by Robert Gibbs and Mary Mei Loc-Wu on ASV, 8/01 and 6/02) of the darkly smouldering Legend and Ballad from 1915 and 1916 respectively, as well as the Allegro appassionato in G minor (a likeable student effort from 1901) and unpublished F major Sonata of 1928 (which Bax subsequently recast as his captivating Nonet).

The Potton Hall sound in these last four items (emanating from sessions a year after those for the Second Sonata) is particularly handsome and true, and the disc as a whole represents yet another "must have" within this extensive series.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2007

Modern commentators make much of the impact that the First World War had on Bax’s Second Violin Sonata, pointing to the change of style that separated it from the earlier sonata. Conveniently they forget that the second and third movements in the revised version of the first sonata were also composed in 1915. Indeed the final version of the First was not completed until the end of the Second World War. Though the conflict did have a profound effect on him, we should surely accept Bax’s final description of the second sonata as having no programme, but should be described as ‘A sonata in four linked movements’. It could hardly hope for a more persuasive account, the quiet introverted beauty of the slow movement acting as a perfect foil to the brilliance of the finale, a return to peace making a poignant conclusion. Ballade, dating from 1916, was a rather strange title for such a storm-tossed piece; Legend from the previous year brings a shimmering and calming influence. Written when was 18, Bax’s one movement sonata in G minor is a happy and busy score where the violin dances around the forceful accompaniment. We would have had a fourth sonata in F major, but he withdrew it having plundered the music to form a Nonet to meet a deadline for the 1930 Bradford Triennial Festival. In its original form it was first heard in 1983 for the Bax centenary, its unusual use of dynamic relationships between the two instruments creating some fascinating moments, and with a finale full of vitality, the work deserved inclusion in his numbered sonatas. The soft-grained texture of Laurence Jackson’s Vuillaume violin is ideal for these pieces, and in Ashley Wass we have today’s most stimulating advocate of British piano music.

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