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Bax: Piano Sonatas No 1&2, Burlesque, Etc / Ashley Wass

Release Date: 09/21/2004 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8557439   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Arnold Bax
Performer:  Ashley Wass
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 14 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Truth to tell, although I have been beguiled by Bax’s chamber music and thrilled by the symphonies, his piano music hasn’t left the same impression. I’m thinking here of Eric Parkin’s Chandos recordings, which I have on LP. No disrespect is intended to Mr. Parkin; it’s a long time since I’ve heard his versions, and the Bax journey has moved on significantly over the years. One day I’ll return to him. For the moment, however, Ashley Wass suggests that Bax’s piano music is a sensational discovery.

Wass, young and British, made it to the Finals of the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2000, and has since notched up some prestigious engagements. Hats off to him for engaging with Bax’s piano output, for on the evidence of
Read more this first issue—yes, this is the beginning of a Bax piano music cycle—Wass isn’t playing this music because he’s been asked to, but because he is wholly convinced by it. He plays these selections, written between 1910 and 1920, wonderfully well, and has been superbly recorded. Wass brings real identification to Bax’s wide-ranging invention. Sonata No. 1, the earliest music here, and lasting 22 minutes in this performance, is a single movement fusing Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin into an engaging sequence that ends with the intimation of bells pealing out.

Sonata No. 2 is also cast as a single movement, this time of 28 minutes; it’s a work requiring several listens to come to terms with its structure and emotional content. I fully realize that to some people Bax is a closed book, and that the expanse of this work will seem no more than a pointless meander using undistinguished material. Others, such as myself, will be absorbed, bowled over, and riveted by Bax’s depth of utterance and his compositional logic. Whether this sonata has a program or is autobiographical or is war related (the sonata was completed in 1919 and revised the following year), this music’s darkness and brooding is established at the very opening with satanic bass-writing. There are occasional glints of light in this dramatically conflicting music until the 20 minute point, when Bax unleashes an overwhelming release of emotion, in which Wass seems utterly caught up. I wondered if Bax was using as a template the Sonata in B Minor of Liszt, for Bax’s climax has a similar purging effect; Bax returns to the opening material to close the sonata, but it is now less threatening. This is a fabulous work and a fabulous performance, too; no doubt there is editing, but the effect is of a straight through rendition, and this is music that has to be appreciated in one big sweep.

After this, the encores, so to speak, bring some relief and are no letdown in terms of quality. The pounding rhythms of In a Vodka Shop certainly have a Russian stamp; it’s an enjoyable trifle. Nereid is a quietly eloquent piece of tone painting, quite haunting, and very sensitively distilled by Wass. Burlesque lives up to its name; it’s a frisky piece, pure pleasure, if something of a handful for the pianist (Wass has mastered it). The longer, 12-minute Dream in Exile (from 1916) is both nostalgic and elegiac—and like Sonata No. 2, its genesis is probably best explained by the contemporary troubles in Ireland. Once more, Wass plays with real understanding.

A superb issue, then, one completed with an informative booklet note by Lewis Foreman. One hopes Wass has been engaged for the subsequent issues; he really does seem a terrific champion of this neglected music.

Colin Anderson, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Piano no 1 by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Ashley Wass (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1910/1921; England 
Sonata for Piano no 2 in F sharp minor by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Ashley Wass (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1919; England 
Dream in Exile by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Ashley Wass (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1916; England 
Burlesque by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Ashley Wass (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1920; England 
Nereid for Piano by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Ashley Wass (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1916; England 
In a Vodka Shop by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Ashley Wass (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915; England 

Sound Samples

Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor: Piano Sonata No. 1
Piano Sonata No. 2 in G major: Piano Sonata No. 2
Dream in Exile
In a Vodka Shop

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