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Paul Ingram
Fanfare, September 2009

Here’s one of Bax’s best “Harriet Cohen” pieces, the enormous Symphonic Variations, composed during World War I. Lewis Foreman’s notes suggest that while Bax dedicated it to his then lover, Cohen’s small hands were not quite up to it. Bax had conceived the music with his own virtuoso technique in mind. Each of the six variations is as long as a movement, and the titles (“Temple,” “Strife,” “Triumph,” etc.) suggest a hidden program. Clear influences include (especially) Franck and Rachmaninoff, but also Elgar.

Complaining that this music is discursive is like criticizing a Thanksgiving dinner for not being sushi. If you know Bax, you know what you’re in for, or you would not sit down for the meal. Along the way, there are self-allusions, whiffs of other composers (thought I noticed a Ring quotation near the end), and the tune of a Bax song whose text suggests that this is indeed love music. Or perhaps music about the role and scale of love and passion, in the context of life and English society. Cohen was a spectacular beauty and a formidable artist. She seemed at the heart of British literary and political life, as well as being adventurous with music and musicians. Bax, already married, had bedded the hottest girl around. The Variations enact the period in which their relationship blossomed, and the composer then came to leave his wife.

The second half of the Variations is the stronger. It starts with “The Temple,” which makes something oddly yearning out of a blend of Grieg and Elgar, and it ends in a “Triumph” that is quite restrained. The music sounds replete with pleasure, and while it’s an extended narrative, it does not feel too long. This recording has the measure of the work, better than the Chandos version. These artists are full and Romantic in the rhapsodic “Nocturne” and brilliant in the scherzo, “Play.” It is no masterpiece, but Wass and Judd successfully project these Variations into the mainstream of big, highly indulgent, late-Romantic concertos.

The late (1949) Concertante is one of the left-hand works not written for Paul Wittgenstein. It’s another “Cohen” work, composed after the right-hand “injury” provoked by the revelation (on the death of his wife) that Bax had yet another girl on the go, and it had been going on for quite some time. The tunes are good, and the 22-minute piece is better than some reviewers claim, though it is not major Bax. A couple of the first-movement figures meandered into the Vaughan Williams Eighth Symphony, written a few years later. Other tunes suggest earlier RVW. The slow movement whips up something genuinely memorable from Rachmaninoff, Elgar, and Ravel, but it’s an authentic Bax delicacy. The Rondo is weaker, like lesser Saint-Saëns.

Recommended to Bax admirers everywhere: the best case for these works you are likely to hear.

David Hurwitz, July 2009

It’s surprising that Arnold Bax’s Symphonic Variations isn’t played more often, for it’s hard to imagine a more attractive Romantic work for piano and orchestra. The only thing it’s lacking, as usual with Bax, is a truly memorable tune, but there are scads of attractive passages and ideas that come awfully close. In any event, this is an excellent performance, with Ashley Wass ebullient, rhapsodic, and meditative by turns. The slower bits (Nocturne and The Temple) are gorgeous, and they never drag. James Judd and the Bournemouth Symphony offer plenty of color and drama on their own, and they are very well recorded.

The Concertante is a late work (1949), and not one of Bax’s best. Even though he’s trying to be lighter than usual, his heavily chromatic harmony weighs the piece down, and what purports to be a jolly tune at the start of the final rondo fails miserably. Still, as with the Variations, the performance is wholly committed, and overall, especially on the strength of the Variations, this remains a fine addition to the Bax discography, and a very good deal at the price.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, June 2009

A marvellous musical team weaves its magic in this spellbinding repertoire

Composed between 1916 and 1918, and premiered at Queen’s Hall in November 1920 under Henry Wood, the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra bear a dedication to Bax’s muse and lover, Harriet Cohen. It’s an expansive and highly virtuoso work in two parts, whose six sections are apportioned titles (“The Temple” being the most eye-catching) that tantalisingly suggest some underlying programme. Borrowings from Bax’s own First Violin Sonata and (more crucially) his 1916 setting of George “AE” Russell’s poem “Parting”, add a further layer of autobiographical intrigue. Best, I think, to sit back and let the piece weave its uniquely potent spell, for it contains page after page as raptly beautiful and ecstatically sensuous as even Bax ever conceived.

Like Vernon Handley in his pioneering 1970 recording with the Guildford PO and (yes, the real!) Joyce Hatto (Concert Artist - nla; given the scandal of Hattogate, will it ever see the light of day again?), James Judd keeps a firmer hand on the structural and motivic tiller than does Bryden Thomson on his otherwise very fine version with Margaret Fingerhut (Chandos). There’s no disputing, though, that Ashley Wass is the most stylish, characterful and charismatic of the three soloists: the way he shapes the spellbinding opening paragraph of the final section (“Triumph”, one of Bax’s symphonic epilogues in all but name) is sheer magic and betokens a true poet of the keyboard.

The 1949 Concertante, written (again) for Harriet Cohen after she had lost the use of her right hand in a domestic accident, is smaller fry—but it can boast an absolute gem of a slow movement (its main theme comprises one of those gorgeous “haunt you for days” tunes that Bax seemed to be able to pluck out of the ether at will). Again, the performance is a very persuasive one, interpretatively more than holding its own alongside the albeit more sumptuously engineered Fingerhut/BBC PO/Handley account (Chandos).

I do hope these artists now have their sights firmly set on Bax’s even more masterly and consistently inspired Winter Legends. In the meantime, though, a hearty welcome for this conspicuously successful pairing.

Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News, May 2009

Arnold Bax’s music might remind you of Rachmaninoff’s—only with Celtic touches in place of Russian. More than 50 years after his death, the British master’s work is gradually returning to favor. The two works for piano and orchestra here show why.

Written when Bax was 35, the Symphonic Variations is longer than most piano concertos. It’s hard to trace a true variations form in its seven massive movements, but the music is immediately appealing. The violent central section, “Strife,” will probably be the first to grab you, but the noble slow one, “The Temple,” might stay with you the longest. Ashley Wass’ big piano sound rides the orchestral waves launched powerfully by the Bournemouth Symphony under James Judd.

The Concertante for Piano Left-Hand, from 30 years later, is rather darker, more astringent. It’s hard to know whether the composer’s mood has really changed, though—the many concertos for left hand written in the mid-20th century frequently exploit the left hand’s comfort in the bass range, so many of them seem autumnal, if not positively wintry.

Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, May 2009

Bax’s epic Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra equals the Brahms piano concertos in length. Here is a new recording of it that supersedes the earlier Chandos version with Margaret Fingerhut and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson. This powerful and poetic reading by Wass and Judd reveals more and assists in a deeper appreciation of this undervalued romantic work.

The Symphonic Variations is divided into two parts with a theme and three variations in the first and three more sections comprising the second. Each variation has a title, some of them enigmatic. Its dedication is to Bax’s lover, the concert pianist, Harriet Cohen. Rosa Newmarch who wrote the programme note for the first performance tried to be helpful—she likened it to “some great epic poem dealing with the adventures of a hero, passing through different experiences…”

The tumultuous relationship between Harriet and Arnold was spread over many years. It is important to remind ourselves of the times in which this music was composed. Standards and attitudes were very different in those days. People were far more reticent about revealing details about their private lives. It is significant that Arnold and Harriet were discreet about their affair in their books—Farewell My Youth (1943) and A Bundle of Time (1969) respectively. There can be no doubt that Bax was very much in love with Harriet Cohen at the time of this composition—1916–18. Bax’s Tintagel and November Woods were also composed around this time and both allude to their romance. Harriet was a very beautiful and talented young woman and popular with many other musicians and writers. Her circle included Elgar, Sibelius and Arnold Bennett. The latest, 2007 edition of Lewis Foreman’s first class biography, Bax, A Composer and His Times, is well worth reading. It reveals more than his notes for this CD about the developing romance and about the attitude of Bax’s wife, Elsita, whom he left for Harriet. For a fuller appreciation of Bax’s Symphonic Variations, I recommend reading Foreman, especially the chapter devoted to Cohen (pp. 152–175). But do also track their history through the other pages indexed under Cohen’s name. You will then gain a full appreciation of their stormy relationship…

Segments of the piano part of Bax’s song Parting to words by AE (the Irish poet, George Russell) are quoted in the statement of the theme, at the end of the first variation. They also surface at the beginning of the final variation, ‘Triumph’. This must have had great romantic significance for the couple. The words including “…in the night our cheeks were wet, I could not say with dews or tears…” In fact one must suppose that this work is one long love song.  Just listen to those aching horn calls at 0:44 in the statement of the theme and the tender longing of the piano’s entry immediately afterwards supported by long-held, sighing string chords. There is a broad hint of Rachmaninoff here.  The first variation, marked quite self-explanatory ‘Youth: Allegro: Restless and tumultuous’ interrupts this mood accordingly. At 2:29 the tumult dissipates and the music becomes hesitant and sweetly introspective. We then pass without a break into the lovely second variation marked ‘Nocturne: Slow and serene: Broadly’. Wass and Judd are particularly successful in conveying its sylvan beauty: one can so easily imagine moonlit waters, the song of a nightingale and romantic trysts climaxing in sweet passion. Grieg and Delius come to mind. Soft horns prelude the bridge passage into the turbulent third variation that ends part one. It is marked ‘Strife: Allegro vivace’. This is music in an altogether different mood and one can’t help feeling that the composer was influenced by the tragic events in Ireland and the loss of so many of his friends and colleagues in the Great War. Foreman argues convincingly that there might have been a personal agenda too referring to the domestic conflict between Bax and, Elsita, his wife. Certainly the music around 5:00 suggests this idea; listen to those thrashing chords around 5:40. But the movement ends in heroic assertiveness.

The second part of Bax’s Symphonic Variations begins with the fourth variation—enigmatically marked ‘The Temple: Slow and Solemn’. It consists of alternating sections for solo piano and orchestra alone. What Bax had in mind, here, we will probably never know.  The word ‘Temple’ might be the clue. A temple is somewhere to celebrate things sacred. Certainly the romance between Harriet and Arnold would have been sacred but there might have been other elements in Bax’s life that were sacred to him too? For me, this is the emotional heart of the work. Is this Bax revealing himself in love and yearning, in regret and in guilt? There may also be a hankering for times past. We know that he began to look back on pre-war days with a growing bitter sweet nostalgia about this time—Farewell My Youth indeed!—I believe it’s all here. There is some material of a quasi-oriental nature and one is tempted to think of Cyril Scott here. Again Wass and Judd give a glowing account of this beautiful, intense music. Variation five, in contrast, is marked ‘Play: Scherzo: Allegro vivace—Intermezzo: Enchantment Very Moderate tempo’. This is the longest variation at 10:27 minutes. The Scherzo is light, carefree and exuberant—a young Harriet skipping merrily along at 2:00?  Then we come to the altogether more solemn Intermezzo section and those distant drums which Foreman suggests might be far-off gunfire?  This is a deeply felt reverie, some distance away, one might suspect, from romance.  The final variation ‘Triumph: Moderate tempo—Glowing and passionate’ begins as mentioned above with a literal quotation from the piano part of the song Parting. The variation moves from romance and concludes in exciting and passionate assertion, although the pounding piano chords do seem to have an edge of anxiety that Foreman suggests could be symptomatic of the post-(Great)war period to come.

Bax’s Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra was written in 1949 for Harriet, in penance, one suspects, for his earlier shabby treatment of her when he was obliged to confess, after his wife, Elsita, had died in 1947, and when Harriet insisted that there was now no impediment to them marrying, that he had been involved, for many years, in an extra affair with Mary Gleaves. A terrific row ensued and soon after Harriet suffered the accident to her right wrist apparently caused when she dropped a tray of glasses. This work, except for its central moderato tranquillo movement is quite inferior, I fear to the Symphonic Variations. Yet Wass and Judd serve it well…This CD is certain to figure amongst my choice of recordings for 2009.

James Leonard, May 2009

If this 2009 recording had been made 40 years earlier, it would certainly have been released on EMI. With a pair of works by one of England’s best second-rank twentieth century composers plus performances by one of England’s best provincial orchestras and one of her best up-and-coming piano virtuosos, it would have been a natural for one of England’s best classical labels. Forty years on, however, it is left to Hong Kong’s Naxos label to release Arnold Bax: Symphonic Variations, James Judd with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s excellent recording of Arnold Bax’s Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra and Concertante for (Left Hand) piano and orchestra. Whether with two hands or one, Ashley Wass is a virtuoso pianist with a complete understanding of Bax’s post-Romantic style, and his playing here makes a strong case for both works: the opulently emotional Symphonic Variations from 1918 and the more elegant expressive Concertante of 1949. Judd backs him to the hilt and the Bournemouth musicians provide them both with beautifully played performances. Recorded in clear, deep, colorful digital sound that rivals the best of the best full-priced labels, this disc deserves to be heard by anyone who enjoys Bax’s music.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, April 2009

Nothing can save the Symphonic Variations from being discursive—that’s part of its charm and its sometimes compelling atmosphere. There is something of the freewheeling meditation about this piece. It is as if the composer drifts in a sort of ecstatic reverie. The filigree and wash of colour and the occasional grandeur recall other rhapsodic works such as Gliere's Ilya Mourametz.

The work dates from earlyish in Bax's life—in fact from the time of the Great War, his grand and guilty passion for Harriet Cohen and then his separation from his wife. From 1949, just four years short of Bax's death comes the Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra. It’s a softer focus piece: largely unassertive and with a cool temperament. The start of its central Moderato tranquilo includes a prize-winning romantic floral melody—almost sentimental—if soft in focus. It was written for Harriet to play and her Paris broadcast of the piece was once issued on an early 1980s private cassette which had limited circulation…Ashley Wass clearly knows his stuff having already recorded four Bax CDs for Naxos on 8.557439, 8.557592 and 8.557769 and with Martin Roscoe the two piano works on 8.570413. We should not forget the two Naxos CDs encompassing the Bax works for violin and piano: 8.557540 and 8.570094.

The music is very nicely recorded and extremely well projected. We must now hope fervently for another Naxos volume to include the utterly compelling Winter Legends and Saga Fragment with Springtime in Sussex. More power to the elbow of the supportive BSO Endowment Trust who made this disc possible…This Naxos is a fine disc including rarely recorded and very attractive late Bax.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Maybe the title does little to enhance its popularity among keyboard virtuosos, though in truth Arnold Bax’s Symphonic Variations is a brilliantpiano concerto. Bax passed through several phases in a highly productive career, the Symphonic Variations coming from the period when he embraced a late-Romantic style fulsome in the bravura passages Rachmaninov was making popular. He dedicated it to the celebrated pianist of the day, Harriet Cohen, who was known to be his mistress, and she retained exclusive rights to the score, though it had proved beyond her physical attributes, and only after Bax’s death was the complete work heard without the changes he made to accommodate her shortcomings. It presents considerable technical demands, yet only occasionally affording that showmanship to attract commercial virtuosity. Coming at the end of the First World War we do have moments, as in the fourth section of the first part, where the conflict shows that it had impinged on his inner being, but it is a passing mood. Despite Cohen’s demands regarding that score, he was also to write the Concerto for Piano (Left Hand) when, following a domestic accident, she suffered a permanent disability. He later downgraded it to a Concertante, and it remains one of his most attractive scores, and totally out of character for a work composed as late as 1949. Mostly joyous, it is cleverly conceals that only one hand is involved. It is true to say that the young Ashley Wass is today’s leading exponent of British piano music. Not only superbly equipped for the demands, but he has the ability of making slow moving music absolutely riveting. No one could have wished for more committed and polished accompaniments, the Bournemouth Symphony, with James Judd conducting, never having sounded better. Stunning sonics and my top choice of the month.

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