Notes and Editorial Reviews
R E V I E W S:
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.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Symphonic Variations. Concertante for Piano Left Hand
Ashley Wass (pn); James Judd, cond; Bournemouth SO
NAXOS 8.570774 (68: 03)
Here’s one of Bax’s best “Harriet Cohen” pieces, the enormous
, 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
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
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
enact the period in which their relationship blossomed, and the composer then came to leave his wife.
The second half of the
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
into the mainstream of big, highly indulgent, late-Romantic concertos.
The late (1949)
is one of the left-hand works
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.
FANFARE: Paul Ingram
Works on This Recording
Concertante for Piano Left Hand by Arnold Bax
Ashley Wass (Piano)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Featured Sound Samples
Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra: Part II: Variation no 6: Triumph
Concertante for Piano Left Hand: I. Allegro moderato
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