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Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, December 2011

Exceptional performances of two outstanding British chamber works. The Bax work is epic in scope, tumultuous and wild; lyrical and nostalgic. Bridge’s early lyrical yet occasionally turbulent Quintet includes some gorgeous melodies. © MusicWeb International

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, May 2011

The two piano quintets on this disc would seem to make such a logical pairing that I was sure the coupling had been done before, but to the extent that current listings are a reliable guide, apparently it hasn’t. Also surprising is the fact that no entries for Arnold Bax’s sprawling and occasionally luxurious, romantic quintet are to be found in the Fanfare Archive going back to the beginning of it, which starts with the July/August 1991 issue. But the even bigger surprise is that this new recording is the only current listing of the work I’ve been able to find.

Frank Bridge’s quintet has fared rather better, both in the Archive and in the current listings.

Pianist Ashley Wass has been one of Bax’s strongest advocates; this is his ninth recording for Naxos surveying the composer’s works for piano solo as well as those that include piano in concertante and chamber compositions.

Bax completed his one and only piano quintet in 1915. I’d be less than honest if I said the piece is an easy listen. Its first movement, marked Passionate and Rebellious, sets up the conflicting impulses that seem to be at war with each other throughout the work. Outpourings of yearning lyrical beauty are suddenly savaged by highly agitated outbursts of anger. But it’s not just the juxtaposition of strong emotions that jars; that happens in almost all music from Beethoven on. More disturbing, to me at least, is the discordance between styles. One moment we find ourselves in the late 19th- or early 20th-century world of Delius, Bantock, Butterworth, and the English pastoralists, while the next moment we’re cast into a world so dissonant and rhythmically disjunct we could almost imagine this to be something written by Peter Maxwell Davies or Harrison Birtwistle. Perhaps I exaggerate slightly to make a point. Bax hasn’t wandered that far off course, but his quintet is a work of vehement contradictions. It’s also a work of great gravity, imposing weight, and epic proportions. At 41 minutes, a standard four-movement work in this form would be considered ample, but Bax’s quintet is in three movements. When all is said and done, the difficulties posed by this piece, both for the listener and I’m sure the players, might explain why it has enjoyed little currency on disc.

Bridge also wrote only one piano quintet, the D-Minor work on this disc, but it exists in two versions. In its original form of four movements, it was completed in 1905. Bridge participated in a private performance of the work in May 1907, and the piece received its first public hearing a month later. The composer was deeply dissatisfied with the quintet and withdrew it from circulation.

Five years later, in 1912, Bridge took not a scalpel but a meat cleaver to the score, preserving some of its thematic material but practically rewriting the whole first movement, reworking the finale’s development section, thinning out the piano part, and combining the two middle movements into one, thus making the quintet into a three-movement work. Bridge’s revisions recall and closely parallel what Brahms had done to his Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major 20 years earlier. The later version of Brahms’s trio retained the opus number of the original, while the two versions of Bridge’s quintet were assigned different numbers, but the fact remains that both versions of both composers’ works remain in viable performing editions, though as with the Brahms trio, the original version of Bridge’s quintet is rarely played.

Wass and the Tippett Quartet opt for the revised 1912 version, as do all others on disc as far as I know. A chorus of commentators and critics before me has noted the similarities between Bridge’s relatively early quintet and the music of Fauré. To quote from Cameron’s aforementioned review, “Bridge’s early infatuation with Fauré is evident in the lush Piano Quintet, a work bound with cyclic themes and brimming with passion (and occasionally sentimentalism).” If I chimed in with a similar opinion, I’d merely be singing in unison with the choir. So to add my own unobtrusive counterpoint to the chanting, I’ll say that Bridge’s scent is more English lavender than it is Coco Chanel. Melodies are not quite as voluptuous, the rhythmic profile is more pronounced, and harmonic modulations, more pungent, don’t morph and meld quite as smoothly as they do in Fauré. Nonetheless, Bridge’s quintet is a skillfully crafted, handsomely upholstered late or post Romantic score of appreciable beauty.

Performances and recordings being of equal merit, at Naxos’s budget price, I give the palm to the Tippett Quartet and Wass, who are excellent in every respect. The Bax is not likely to be love at first hearing, but the release is strongly recommended nonetheless.

Alan Becker
American Record Guide, March 2011

Bax began writing his Quintet in at the outbreak of World War I. By that time he had begun to enter his mature phase, and his passionate relationship with pianist Harriet Cohen undoubtedly also contributed to the first movement’s indication of ‘Passionate and Rebellious’. Although it starts out with craggy abandonment, the music soon embraces the romantic pathos so much a part of his compositional style.

Bridge’s Quintet, at 27 minutes, is considerably shorter than the Bax. As one would expect, it’s a tighter work, though it’s a three-movement reduction of an original four movements. There is a sweepingly romantic quality to the opening Allegro Moderato, and the ensuing Adagio pours out its exquisite theme with gut-wrenching ecstasy. Like the central movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, a scurrying scherzo picks up the speed for awhile before returning to the opening Adagio. Although it is Bridge in his first creative period, many will enjoy it far more than the more unyielding and dissonant style he eventually embraced. Wass and the Tippett Quartet play with edge-of-the-seat intensity…Bridge ties the entire package together when themes return for the final movement, and the energy created leaves one breathless. Except for some extra small print, the notes are a pleasure to read, and the sound is strong.

Patsy Morita, March 2011

Since Ashley Wass was signed as Naxos’ first exclusive artist in 1997, he has been exploring the solo piano and piano chamber music of several early 20th century British composers. By 2010 (the date of this release) Frank Bridge and Arnold Bax are the two composers Wass has more covered more completely. Here Wass is able to combine the two, where he is joined by the Tippett Quartet for a pairing of the Bax and Bridge piano quintets. Only 10 years separate the two works, and both have a sumptuousness of sound, a lyricism, and a passion to them, although they are distinctive in the way each composer uses harmonies and voices the instruments. Bax more frequently than Bridge uses the quartet as an opposing player to the piano, often for textural effect, and when he does use the five instruments more individually, they are often moving in different directions and at different speeds. The two violins may be moving slowly upward while the piano has rapid figures moving downward. The entrance of the strings in the first movement is a little disjointed for this reason. Bax is also more attuned to folk music than Bridge, setting folk idioms with cool harmonic colors in the middle movement. The Bridge, on the other hand, is romantically warm and lush, more ardent in a way that easily draws in the listener. Wass and the quartet play it with controlled intensity so that no one is unnecessarily swept away. Wass, especially, uses subtle shading in the slow movement to great effect. Naxos’ sound is good, but just a little more depth of color for all the instruments would have enhanced the richness of these two quintets. Despite the differences of the compositional styles, this is a pairing that makes sense and a performance that satisfies.

Andrew Achenbach
The Classical Review, February 2011

The latest addition to Naxos’s extensive Bax discography teams Ashley Wass with the Tippett Quartet for a hugely impressive account of the large-scale Piano Quintet. It was written between July 1914 and April 1915, and first performed privately in December 1917 at a Music Club Concert in London’s Savoy Hotel by the composer’s muse Harriet Cohen with the English String Quartet.

A mightily imposing utterance it is, too, brimful of strong invention (the slow movement in particular can boast a tune in Bax’s most gorgeously Irish vein), and evincing a lofty ambition, tumbling fantasy and slumbering organic power that points the way forward to his great wartime trilogy of tone poems (The Garden of Fand, November Woods and Tintagel) as well as his cycle of seven symphonies.

There are three movements in all: the expansive opening Tempo moderato (marked “Passionate and Rebellious”) presents a succession of hauntingly memorable themes that are destined for bold transformation in the finale, while the central Lento serioso alternates passages of heady lyricism with those of a more ghostly, even sinister bent. Wass and the Tippett Quartet prove magnificently assured and clear-headed proponents, sifting Bax’s often startlingly imaginative textures with breathtaking skill, while at the same time quarrying every ounce of bewitching poetry and spooky mystery from the slow movement.

Perhaps David Owen Norris’s luxuriant 1989 recording with the Mistry Quartet for Chandos (available again as a download) conveys a greater sense of titanic struggle and epic sweep (it clocks in at 46’15” as against these newcomers’ 41’10”), but there’s certainly room in the catalogue for two such strikingly different views and no Baxian should miss hearing what Wass and company have to say about this ruggedly beautiful music.

The coupling is another fine Piano Quintet, that of Frank Bridge (who, incidentally, played the viola part in the premiere of the Bax). Completed in 1905, it was comprehensively overhauled seven years later: the first movement was virtually recomposed, piano textures lightened and (most significantly) the two middle movements condensed into one of Bridge’s beloved, arch-like “phantasy” structures.

It’s a piece that finally seems to be coming into its own (this is, by my reckoning, the fourth recording of it to appear within the last 18 months or so). Suffice it to say, Wass and the Tippett Quartet do Bridge proud, their reading having exemplary polish, ardor and thrust to commend it, albeit without quite the songful flexibility and heartwarming spontaneity of the London Bridge Ensemble’s treasurable account on Dutton Epoch (the raptly hushed return of the middle movement’s beguiling principal theme feels just a little self-conscious in this latest version).

Even so, there’s still no reason to withhold an enthusiastic recommendation. What’s more, neither the production values (Michael Ponder) nor annotation (Andrew Burn) can be faulted. A peach of a disc, this, and a real steal at Naxos price.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, January 2011

This heartfelt performance of his powerful Piano Quintet adds considerably to the Bax discography. The Quintet may not match his symphonies, but it does deserve a place in the catalogue, where it was previously unrepresented. Ashley Wass is rapidly making a name for himself with his recordings for Naxos, to whom he is exclusively contracted, and he is well supported here by the Tippett Quartet.

There are other recordings of the Bridge, notably from Piers Lane and the Goldner Quartet…and Michael Dussek and the Bridge Quartet…. I haven’t heard those rival recordings, but I was a little underwhelmed by Wass and the Tippet Quartet after they had made such a strong case for the Bax. Perhaps it’s the rather rhapsodic nature of the Bridge, from whom one expects something rather sharper, rather than the performance. I don’t want to make too much of my slight disappointment with the Bridge—try it for yourself at the Naxos Music Library if possible—and, in any case, the performance of the Bax justifies the modest cost of the download.

Mp3 only—no lossless version as yet—but the recording does the music and performances full justice, even in that form.

John France
MusicWeb International, January 2011

This CD presents two major chamber works for piano quintet. Both are by well known British composers and both were largely written and revised before the Great War. Until recently neither of these works was readily available on CD or other recorded media.

Arnold Bax’s Piano Quintet in G minor is a massive work. In fact it has been described by Lewis Foreman as reflecting a stage in his musical development that would finally result in seven powerful symphonies. The writing of this work was begun in the days leading up to the Great War and was completed in April 1915. It was to be another couple of years before its first performance at a private Music Club Concert at the Savoy Hotel with Harriet Cohen as the pianist and the English String Quartet. More than two years were to pass before the Quintet was heard in public at the Wigmore Hall. Here, Fanny Davies was accompanied by the Bohemian Quartet. The quintet was dedicated to Bax’s champion, the music critic Edwin Evans.

The structure of this piece is on a grand, expansive scale. It makes cyclic use of thematic material between the first and third movements and introduces an epilogue in the closing bars. Although much of this Quintet owes its mood and style to the prevailing post-romantic tradition, good use is made of Celtic musical imagery. Andrew Burn is correct in pointing out the ‘myriad musical material [that] is subjected to a constant process of evolution as he exploits all manner of harmonic and instrumental colours to superb effect.’

The other competing version of Arnold Bax’s Piano Quintet in G minor is with David Owen Norris and the Mistry String Quartet released on Chandos (CHAN8795 nla). Furthermore, I understand that there was a recording of the work proposed in 1967 with the pianist Frank Merrick. However this was never issued. I listened to the Chandos disc as part of the preparation for my review: I certainly felt that in spite of this recording being more than twenty years old it still has much to offer. If pushed, I would say that I prefer the David Owen Norris. It seems to be more masculine and manages to capture the ‘Celtic twilight’ atmosphere more effectively. However this is not to belittle the present recording. Wass and the Tippett Quartet have coped with this large and complex work with great fortitude and sensitivity. It largely comes down to a matter of taste and preference, although the Naxos recording is some five minutes shorter that the Chandos!

Conveniently for the reviewer, Lewis Foreman, in his biography of Bax, has included a comparison between the Bridge and the Bax Quintets written by Peter J Pirie: it is worth quoting in full. “Frank Bridge wrote a fine Piano Quintet, and is a greatly underrated composer, but we have only to compare his formally perfect Quintet—strong but rather colourless and set against [the] later Bridge, unoriginal—with the smoky blaze, the bursting clumsy invention, the vast stormy landscape and crippled splendour of Bax’s Quintet to realise immediately the genius of the latter. It establishes his kind.”

I personally hold the Bridge Quintet in a higher regard, but there is no doubting the genius of Bax’s music. Perhaps it is the difference between the turbulent, troubled history and politics and the Celtic landscape of Ireland compared to a mildly disturbed meditation on life on the Sussex Downs on a windy, but warm, autumn’s day. It may be an unfair comparison, but I think it acts as a referential marker.

Frank Bridge’s Piano Quintet in D minor is a superb work that is in all honesty a high-point of post-Romantic British music. It is good that recognition of this masterpiece has finally been declared. Paul Hindmarsh has given this work the catalogue number H49a implying that there was an earlier edition of this Quintet. In fact, the original work was composed between 1904 and 1905. However, after a couple or performances it was set aside by the composer who was largely dissatisfied with it. Hindmarsh has noted that the original quintet was a ‘muscular, four-movement work, with a huge piano part, brim full of musical ideas’ yet the work was deemed to be ‘lacking the refinement and elegance of his mature chamber works.’

In 1912 the composer revised the Quintet. The first movement was completely rewritten: the second and third movements were shortened and combined into a single ‘span’. The finale was also cut down in size. But perhaps most importantly, Bridge made the work cyclic by introducing themes from the first movement into the last. Andrew Burn, in the liner-notes, states that the composer also ‘lightened the piano textures throughout’. The revision was more concentrated and less inclined to ramble. Unfortunately the original work has not been recorded so it is impossible to compare the two rescensions. However it has been noted that most of the angularities from 1905 have been smoothed out and there is a greater reliance on ‘Fauré-inspired arpeggiated figuration’.

The revised Quintet is certainly one that listeners can do business with. It is a work that largely straddles two sides of Frank Bridge’s musical aesthetic. On the one hand it has a romanticism that owes much to Brahms and also a significant nod to Stanford. On the other, this work has considerable intimations of the composer’s later, more austere style that came to dominate after the Great War. The Piano Quintet in D minor is a bright, satisfying work that is always enjoyable and often moving. The more I hear this piece (in whatever version) the more it becomes a favourite. However, the present recording is excellent with a committed and confident performance.

It is always invidious to recommend one recording of a work over another—especially when there are so few editions available. The bottom line is that all enthusiasts of Bax and Bridge will insist on having this Naxos release in their libraries. I guess that most will not sit and compare them note-for-note looking for subtleties of light and shade and interpretation. They are works that are to be appreciated and enjoyed: if they move and inspire, then that is a major benefit. On any reckoning the present recording succeeds in all these achievements.

Edward Greeenfield
Gramophone, January 2011

British music from the first decades of the 20th century in lively performances

This coupling of chamber works by Arnold Bax and Frank Bridge, both from early in the 20th century, makes an excellent addition to Naxos’s admirable series of rare British chamber music. Much the longer and more ambitious is the Bax, written in 1914–15, during the First World War. Nothing of that conflict is conveyed in this often exuberant music, for characteristically Bax's ideas flow generously, maybe too much so for their own good. We know that he composed at the piano and much of this reflects that, though the strong structure of all three movements is based on striking ideas, with a bold opening to the first movement leading persuasively to a second subject in a sort of hornpipe rhythm, and on to a more foursquare third section.

The central slow movement is based on a warm, direct melody, leading to the mysterious opening of the finale; this hints at the themes of the following Allegro, whose first theme is again in a sort of jaunty hornpipe rhythm, leading to a lyrical second subject, and on to what in a effect is a slow epilogue—a favourite Bax device in his symphonies. At 41 minutes the Quintet may be on the long side but it certainly holds the interest throughout, particularly in a fine performance such as this by the Tippett Quartet and Ashley Wass, who obviously relishes the virtuoso element in the piano writing.

The Bridge Quintet dates from rather earlier—1904—but Bridge radically revised it in 1912. A slow introduction leads to a first movement in conventional sonata form and on to a gently lyrical slow movement into which Bridge introduces a scherzo section that is rather Mendelssohnian in its lightness. The finale has a striking opening in an Allegro energico that lives up to that marking before a flamboyant close, one of the relatively few places in which the pianist can show off for, unlike Bax, Bridge was far less concerned with piano writing, being a string player himself. None the less, an attractive work well worth hearing in a performance as lively as this. First-rate sound too, recorded in St Silas Church, Chalk Farm, London.

Philip Clark
Classic FM, January 2011

The Music A pair of works for piano and string quartet by two highly-regarded British composers of the early 20th century. Bax’s forty-minute long Piano Quintet (1915) occupies symphonic dimensions, and is dark and broody—the sound of surprise. Bridge’s Quintet (1905) is more obviously Edwardian and stately, but powerful full-bodied Finale though.

The Performance Confounding the popular view of him as fey rural pastoralist, Bax’s Piano Quintet is wonderfully off-the-leash and extreme; Wass and The Tippet Quartet keep the tempestuous, jaggedly chromatic melody lines of the first movement dangling on a precipice: and what to make of the percussive pizzicato thwacks that open the second movement? The Tippetts choose not to compromise their physical impact, nor Bax’s obsessive-compulsive, hard-driven finale. The Bridge is more of a wallow; great if you like that kind of thing, especially given Ashley Wass and the Tippett’s regal, red-blooded tone.

The Verdict I can’t imagine the Bax receiving a more passionate, devoted performance and this disc has made me rethink my view of his music. An equally impressive account of the Bridge

Want More? Bridge’s tone poems The Sea, Enter Spring and Summer are gnarly, adventurous orchestral works: I like the forthright, exploratory performances from the New Zealand SO and James Judd (Naxos 8.557167).

Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, December 2010

[Bax’s] tunes that haunted me were the cello phrase opening Bax’s Piano Quintet and the viola tune from Tintagel.” Felix Apprahamian - writing in March 1982 for the Foreword to the First Edition of Lewis Foreman’s Bax – A Composer and His Times.

Bax’s Piano Quintet is a long-spanned, sprawling, complex work—possibly too complex—certainly Lewis Foreman in his biography of the composer suggests it is. There is an impression of there being larger forces at work here than just a quintet. It stands at the end of the period of his early works and marks a shift in style to a more mature outlook. It can be seen to be pointing the way towards his symphonies of the 1920s and 1930s. The string writing includes many colourful effects while the piano part is beautifully sensitive and decorative as well as assertive. The first two movements were written very swiftly in mid-July 1914 but the third movement did not follow until the Great War had been raging for several months. As Bax’s biographer, Lewis Foreman suggests, “its colder atmosphere may well reflect the dark and ominous cloud that had darkened the sunny landscape of the earlier movements.”

Bax’s Piano Quintet was first performed at a private gathering of a Music Club Concert in London’s Savoy Hotel on 19 December 1917 with Harriet Cohen and the English String Quartet. It is tempting to think that Bax might have revised some of its music between its conception and this private performance. Some part of its influence might have been not just the Great War but also the events in Ireland and, especially, the early experiences of his turbulent relationship with his lover, Harriet Cohen. It should be stated that Bax did not give any clue as to any proposed programmatic origin for this remarkable work. Yet his detailed expressionistic score markings would suggest that there could have been a non-musical inspiration. Enigmatically what might be regarded as Spanish inflections may be discerned, in the second and third movements.

The Quintet opens with defiant, muscular piano chords and a portentous cello theme redolent of the tempestuous and passionate music that comprises so much of this epic, almost 19-minute-long opening movement. There are quasi-dance measures, sometimes merry, at other times wild and frenzied. The movement’s lyrical episodes are tinged with yearning and possibly nostalgic regret. Celtic influences and liturgical elements are also apparent.

The complex slow movement commences with pizzicato string chords. Rippling watery piano figurations accompany a slowly-unwinding, serenely-romantic string melody. Another liturgical figure arises counterpointed by a persistent figure that is uncannily like Bernard Herrmann’s obsessive habanera for Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Slow and quietly meditative string music contrasts with evocations of sea-waves from the piano.

The finale continues the emphatic and tempestuous mood of the opening movement and at about one minute in, those obsessive Herrmann-esque figures are heard again leading to barbaric, possessed dance figures. This is an extraordinary movement, its temperature often icy, with some weird effects. The Celtic influence is strong too.

Ashley Wass, so well-attuned to Bax’s idiom, as evidenced on his previous, well-received, Naxos Bax releases, is partnered by an equally responsive Tippett Quartet, to deliver a committed performance of this passionate, capricious music.

Frank Bridge’s lovely, shorter Piano Quintet belongs to his more accessible, first creative period. It was originally conceived as a four-movement piece but it was radically revised in 1912 when the composer virtually re-wrote the first movement, shortening it and lightening its textures, and compressing the two middle movements into one. Like the Bax Quintet, it too begins in turmoil but its darker pages vie with the most gorgeous melody, a tune that has persisted in my mind for days, especially as played so tenderly here. The second movement charms. It opens softly, slowly and meditatively before another lovely romantic melody unfolds. A touch of Mendelssohn follows with a scampering elfin scherzo. The Allegro energico finale is forceful with much energy and fire. A wistful tune voiced by the viola and developed by the piano and strings brings lyrical relief.

Stunning performances of two important British Piano Quintets.

Calum MacDonald
BBC Music Magazine, December 2010

Ashley Wass and the Tippett Quartet rise magnificent to its challenges, striking the perfect balance between the OTT grandiloquence and intense and genuine feeling. …this is a thrilling performance with the authentic all-or-nothing flavour.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

Two quintessential British Piano Quintets redolent with lyric beauty came as part of that final flowering of the Romantic era. As a composer Arnold Bax took many years to reach musical maturity, this work, completed when he was already thirty-two, being the first of his important works. It is robust in the outer movements, largely driven by the keyboard, the extensive score lasting over forty minutes. Combining vastly differing moods in the opening movement, quiet contemplation quickly giving to tempestuous outbursts, it much depends on the performer’s ability to knit them into a cohesive whole. The strings come to the fore in the central Lento, and as the movement progresses, so does the level of animation. The finale opens angrily, but soon moves into an Irish-inspired dance, an early example of his blossoming love of everything Celtic. It ends in a sombre atmosphere, that may reflect Bax’s sense of foreboding of an impending war. Frank Bridge’s Quintet from 1904 predates Bax by a decade, and it too was an early work, though the revised score was not completed until 1912. Then reshaped into three movements, it abounds in youthful ardour, thematic material as invigorating as it is tuneful. Unlike Bax, this has the string quartet as its starting point, to which is added a piano, often as a decorative element. It does, however, share with Bax a passion for vastly changing moods, the central movement combining the slow movement and an impish scherzo. Ashley Wass offers his credentials as one of today’s performers of British music, his empathy with both works being quite exceptional. The Tippett Quartet is no less convincing, their playing of impeccable quality. Very strongly commended.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group