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Arnold Bax: Works For Cello & Piano

Bax / Handy / Clayton
Release Date: 09/10/2013 
Label:  Sleeveless   Catalog #: 1007   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Arnold Bax
Performer:  Lionel HandyNigel Clayton
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BAX Sonatina in D for Cello and Piano. Rhapsodic Ballad for Solo Cello. Folk-Tale for Cello and Piano. Legend-Sonata in f# for Cello and Piano Lionel Handy (vc); Nigel Clayton (pn) SLEEVELESS 1007 (65:58)

Arnold Bax is a composer whose music I have long planned to explore in greater depth, but I unfortunately haven’t yet gotten Read more around to it. All of the works on this disc are new to me, and so I approach this review with interest but no expertise. The titles of these pieces give a clue to the character of Bax’s music: he was inspired by literature, folklore, and nature, and even where there is no explicit reference his music tends to be pictorial and evocative of a scene or a story. The chamber music idiom, by virtue of its more limited tonal palette, is perhaps less suited to this tendency than the orchestral one, but Bax nonetheless wrote a large body of chamber works. He did not, however, write that much for cello and piano, and this disc includes all of his music for that combination except for the 1923 Sonata in E? Major, as well as his only composition for unaccompanied cello. These works demonstrate his ability to draw a wealth of color from the two instruments involved.

The Folk Tale of 1918 is the earliest work on this release and derives from the same period as Bax’s best-known compositions, the tone poems Tintagel and The Garden of Fand . It is more lushly romantic in style than the later works on the disc, and is said to have been influenced by the composer’s grief over developments in his beloved Ireland, specifically the bloody Easter Rebellion of 1916. Although not Irish in ancestry, Bax was enamored of that country, had earlier spent a lot of time there, and drew much inspiration from its scenery and folklore. The piece is pervaded by a mood of sadness and regret, often gentle and quiet but sometimes rising to greater vehemence. It opens with an extended passage for the piano alone, and it is notable that in this work as elsewhere the piano, rather than providing mere accompaniment, is accorded an equal role by Bax, who was himself an accomplished pianist.

The first movement of the 1933 Sonatina is marked Allegro risoluto and does begin resolutely, but in its second theme subsides into a dreamy mood that is often encountered in Bax’s music, becoming more assertive again in the development. In the second movement, Bax is once again in the kind of gently melancholic state to which he was prone, and a genial, jocular Finale concludes the piece. The Rhapsodic Ballad for unaccompanied cello was completed in 1939 but not performed until 1966, well after the composer’s death. No literary connection is specified, but the work definitely has a narrative quality, as well as a wide range of thematic, timbral, and dynamic effects that sustain interest.

The Legend-Sonata in F? Minor was written in 1943, at a time when Bax’s composing career was winding down. His seven symphonies and other major works had been completed, and he felt oppressed by the sense that he was regarded as old-fashioned and out of touch with modern musical trends. Although he lived another 10 years, he wrote only a few more compositions. The first movement of the Legend-Sonata has something in common with the corresponding movement of the 1933 Sonatina, in that it is again marked Allegro risoluto but alternates between the assertive and the elegiac, although it is more than twice as long as the earlier movement. The slow movement is dominated by a ravishingly poignant melody of seemingly Irish character, but also incorporates a vehement central climax. The Rondo Finale, although predominantly bittersweet in character, contains much contrast and ends with a triumphant flourish.

The performances are excellent. Cellist Lionel Handy plays with full, rich tone and precise rhythmic control. He avoids excessive vibrato and the kind of nasal sound that can sometimes afflict cellists in high-lying passages. Nigel Clayton negotiates the demanding piano parts with precision and spontaneity. Sound quality is excellent as well, exemplary in spaciousness, clarity, focus, and smoothness. The piano tone is firm and well defined, and the acoustic has just the right amount of reverberation.

There isn’t much competition for this release on the current market. I find no other recordings of the Rhapsodic Ballad currently listed in the U.S. or Britain. The three works for cello and piano are available in 1950s mono recordings by Florence Hooton, who was one of Handy’s teachers, and Wilfrid Parry, on the Lyrita label. A deleted ASV disc containing those works is still downloadable in Britain but not the U.S. The Folk Tale is also available on a Naxos CD, performed by members of the Gould Piano Trio and coupled with other chamber music by Bax. The Legend-Sonata was recorded for the Hänssler label by Johannes Moser and Paul Rivinius, coupled with sonatas by Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten. I haven’t heard any of those alternatives, but I strongly endorse the present release, for the excellence of its performances and sound quality and the value of this unfamiliar music.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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Works on This Recording

Sonatina for Cello and Piano in D major by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Lionel Handy (Cello), Nigel Clayton (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1933; England 
Rhapsodic Ballad for Cello and Piano by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Lionel Handy (Cello), Nigel Clayton (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; England 
Legend-Sonata for Cello and Piano in F sharp minor by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Lionel Handy (Cello), Nigel Clayton (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; England 
Folk Tale for Cello and Piano by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Lionel Handy (Cello), Nigel Clayton (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1918; England 

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