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Andrew King
MUSO, June 2009

This is the fourth offering of piano music by Arnold Bax on the Naxos label. Pianist Ashley Wass, who has recorded the three previous discs, teams up with the internationally acclaimed Martin Roscoe to present us with a disc of Bax’s works for two pianos.

It must be said that until hearing this disc I was unfamiliar with Bax’s chamber music and while dreading some densely-written Brahms-style textures we are instead presented with some outstandingly melodic and exciting music that, if Wass and Roscoe’s performance is anything to go by, is as much a joy to play as it is to listen to.

The disc opens with the sparkling Festival Overture, in which Wass and Roscoe burst forth in full vigour to catch us by the scruff of the neck and announce immediately that this is both skilful playing and music that must be heard.

The recital includes three substantial works in total, including the Sonata for Two Pianos, a work not unlike the piano writing of Shostakovich, with bright and engaging outer movements shrouding a delicate and lyrical middle movement. Finally, Moy Mell (An Irish Tone-Poem) is a work of wonderful imagination and vivid fairy-like scenery.

The shorter works are The Poisoned Fountain, The Devil that Tempted St Anthony, Red Autumn and finally the concert encore, Hardanger. These shorter pieces share a similar musical ambiguity in their deliberately atmospheric writing, often switching between thick, forceful, chordal passages and more intimate and gentle textures.

Wass and Roscoe extol the full gamut of technical and virtuosic skill in an interesting and exciting programme. This is indeed an excellent disc with enviable merits that any recording pianist would be glad to put their name to.

Penguin Guide, January 2009

The earliest works here are the 1909 Festival Overture, which has not been recorded before (the orchestral transcription is a revision from 1918), and Moy Mell, a wartime piece from 1916 written for Myra Hess and Irene Scharrer, which is highly Celtic. The remaining pieces were composed for the Ethel Bartlett-Rae Robertson partnership which flourished in the inter-war years and on into the 1940s. The Devil That Tempted St Anthony was originally for one piano, as indeed was Red Autumn, and both are full of resource and originality. The Sonata comes from the same period as the Third and Fourth Symphonies and is full of their resonances. Ashley Wass and Martin Roscoe are fully inside the idiom and play with great sympathy and authority. Excellent sound too.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, February 2008

"Arnold Bax’s natural instrument was the orchestra and he wrote fluently for it – symphonies, tone poems, concertos - creating some of the most colourful works of the first forty years of the 20th century."

"This is not a disk made for easy listening. The music is difficult, with the exception of the first and last works, which are the exception to the rule, and needs time for contemplation and reflection. I’ve known this music for the better part of thirty five years and still haven’t fully come to terms with it. But it does repay study and performances of this stature will do a lot to help disseminate the work to a wider audience. Take your time and there’s much to admire here."

American Record Guide, January 2008

The only real competition here is the superb Chandos with Jeremy Brown and Seta Tanyel. Naxos goes a step further by giving us the Festival Overture in its original form. It makes for an interesting comparison with the composer's orchestration conducted by Bryden Thomson on yet another Chandos CD. As Lewis Forman's excellent notes for Naxos point out, "shorn of its orchestral coloring … it exhibits an unexpected resemblance to Percy Grainger at his most energetic". I also hear a splash of Poulenc and Milhaud at their sauciest.

The Sonata for Two Pianos is in three movements. The first is a staggeringly imaginative essay that seems to push forward in all directions at once. Wass and Roscoe take full honors for their spontaneous sounding approach to the music, but Brown and Tanyel are not far behind in delineating the movement's textures. Honors are about even for the central Lento. Brown and Tanyel carry the honors by attacking the last movement (Vivace e feroce) with greater energy and speed. The closing pages of this final movement carry more conviction in their hands.

Moy Mell (An Irish Tone Poem) is a nine-minute impressionist piece with a Delian central section. While Brown and Tanyel take a minute longer to enjoy the scenery, both performances are immensely pleasing. With The Devil that Tempted St Anthony and a few shorter pieces, both teams lay claim to interpretive excellence. If Brown and Tanyel linger over the Devil more languorously, they assert themselves a little more in the Grieg-inspired Hardanger.

True Baxians will want both of these recordings. Forman wrote the notes for both (different), and both Naxos and Chandos can boast of high quality sound. The Naxos price makes it easy to acquire, even if you have the almost 20-year-old Chandos.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, November 2007

Grab this irresistible opportunity to explore Bax's two-piano output

The latest Naxos helping of Bax gets under way with the first commercial recording of the 1909 Festival Overture in its little-known transcription for two pianos (Bryden Thomson and the LPO have already given us the 1918 revision on Chandos, 7/88R). This is one of Bax’s most diverting youthful compositions, whose frisky revelries are satisfyingly counterbalanced by the gorgeously full-throated tune at its heart. The Irish flavour is even more pronounced in Moy Mell, a bewitchingly beautiful evocation of “The Pleasant Plain” of ancient Celtic folklore written in 1916 for Myra Hess and Irene Scharrer.

All the remaining pieces were fashioned for the husband-and-wife duo of Ethel Bartlett and Rea Robertson, although both The Devil That Tempted St. Anthony and Red Autumn began life as solo essays (now lost) from 1920 and 1912 respectively. The former was premiered in June 1928 alongside The Poisoned Fountain and they make a tremendously resourceful and compelling diptych. The Sonata gives pleasure too: the central Lento espressivo is an ecstatic seascape akin to the slow movements of Bax’s Third and Fourth symphonies from the same period, while the finale depicts a Hebridean dance scene. Rounding off the programme is the rollicking and loveable Hardanger, an encore item par excellence (“with acknowledgements to Grieg”, as Bax writes at the head of the score).

I need merely confirm that Ashley Wass and Martin Roscoe are outstandingly idiomatic and breathtakingly secure interpreters of all this attractive material and they have been recorded with notable fidelity. A peach of a disc, no question about it.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, November 2007

"Bax’s music seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment and the Naxos series devoted to his piano music – of which this is the fourth volume – is especially welcome. Even more so, given the advocacy of Ashley Wass, who has made something of a name for himself in British piano music, including Elgar and Bridge. He and fellow pianist Martin Roscoe certainly seem to have an affinity with Bax, whose impressionistic-mythological idiom is very much in evidence in the music he wrote or arranged for the celebrated piano duo, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson."

"If you know orchestral Bax you will have the measure of these scores. They are just as colourful and seductive and come across with so much life and sparkle that even the anti-Bax brigade must succumb to their manifold charms. Of course the success of this recording is due, in no small measure, to the advocacy and commitment of these two fine pianists. An utterly irresistible collection and a worthy addition to the Naxos/Bax project."

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2007

Arnold Bax often felt that too much was expected of him as the  heir to the English musical renaissance, at times resorting to the style that had made Elgar and Holst famous, though his musical soul was inherently different. In the 1920’s he took the decision to shift away from their influences, and find a more personal voice. That brought into play a sharp-edged atmosphere akin to Nordic and Finnish influences together with the bleak seascapes of his spiritual Irish home. It was in this period of intense creativity that much of his music for two pianos was completed, though in mood they stand apart from his other works from this time. The disc opens with the draft of an orchestral piece prior to orchestration, and harks back to the atmospheric tone-poems already completed. The remaining items were largely intended for the popular husband and wife team of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, the shimmering Poisoned Fountain from 1928 taking its inspiration from Debussy, and it was French Impressionist that runs through Moy Mell, an extensive tone poem taking its name from Irish faery hierarchy indicating ‘a happy plain’. The Sonata is set in three movements, Celtic scenes again used to create the mood in Bax’s mind. There are some jaunty Irish rhythms, yet to my mind I am in France in the days of Dukas and d’Indy, Ravel hovering in the background of the central Lento. The Devil that Tempted St. Anthony started life as a piano solo - now lost - and arranged for duo in the late 1920’s, while Red Autumn and Hardanger are added as pleasing encores. Rapport between the pianists is more essential than individual technical brilliance, though when pressed, as in the finale of the sonata, they ooze with scintillating techniques. A paragraph in the disc notes has been transposed, but if you read the last paragraph first, it will all make more sense. That alone is my miniscule reservation in a disc that I fervently commend to you.

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