Bax: Review of a recital given by Laurence Jackson (violin)

and Ashley Wass (piano) at The Chapel, 64 Park Lane, Norwich, 

on Sunday 20 November  2005 at 6.30 p.m.

Review by Graham Parlett

All-Bax recitals are not exactly thick on the ground, and the prospect of hearing a selection of the composer’s works for violin and piano played by Laurence Jackson and Ashley Wass (including a world première) led me on a cold, dark night to a small 19th-century chapel in an obscure, dimly-lit back street on the outskirts of Norwich just off the aptly-named Unthank Road. The performers were the guests of the Norfolk and Norwich Music Club, a group of music-lovers who regularly invite both established and up-and-coming artists to give chamber recitals. There were barely three dozen people there, which for such a small venue was in fact a capacity audience, and they proved to be an appreciative and enthusiastic crowd of people. Each work was introduced from the platform by the violinist, and a few weeks later all the pieces were recorded at Potton Hall for Naxos .

They began with a lively interpretation of Bax’s student Sonata in G minor (1901), which received its first known public performance in 1983 and its first recording (on ASV) a century after it had been composed. This energetic one-movement score is, as Laurence Jackson remarked, a rather backward-looking piece, but it is tightly constructed and contains memorable, if not especially original, thematic and harmonic ideas. It was a good idea to begin with such a relatively accessible piece seeing that there must have been many people in the audience unfamiliar with Bax’s music. The performance was the best I have heard and augurs well for the forthcoming recording.

Next came the Sonata in F (1928), which is the original version of the Nonet and Bax’s ‘Fourth Violin Sonata’ in all but name. This has also been recorded by Robert Gibbs and Mary Mei-Loc Wu on ASV, but hearing it in this performance was a revelation. It had hitherto sounded to my ears rather like a transcription of the Nonet for violin and piano (though with an additional, stomping section in the second movement that Bax later cut); but here for the first time I felt that I was hearing it in its original form without echoes of the more familiar Nonet version impinging. The work (in both its forms) has suffered in the past from slow speeds in the first movement, performers tending to take a more laid back view of Bax’s Moderato marking than I feel is appropriate; but here everything sounded just right, with a good sense of forward momentum.

The Sonata in F ends quietly, and for the final work in the first half of their concert, Jackson and Wass had chosen to give the world première of the boisterous original finale of the First Sonata (1910). Bax dedicated this piece to the Ukrainian girl whom he had pursued to Russia earlier that year. By the time that it came to be published, in 1921, he had discarded the original second and third movements and replaced them with entirely new music. The central scherzo that we know from the printed score replaced an original slow movement, which has so far only received two performances (in 1914 and 1983). The revised, Moderato finale replaced this Allegro molto vivace, which survives only in a copyist’s score. It is perhaps a shade on the long side (11 minutes 40 seconds in this performance), but it is immensely enjoyable and full of joie de vivre. There are some slow passages, including one in which the motto theme from the first movement of the sonata is played, but the closing pages are wildly (if a little too conventionally) exuberant. Jackson and Wass performed the music as if they had known it all their lives, and the first half of the concert was enthusiastically applauded.

The second half began with the grim Legend of 1915, a piece of which Vaughan Williams was fond and which reflects something of the Great War and the troubles in Ireland . This again received a searing and memorable performance, better than any previous version that I have heard. Finally came the Third Sonata of 1927, dedicated to Carl Nielsen’s son-in-law, Emil Telmányi, which, with its strange mixture of Irish folkiness and Bartókian vehemence, was perhaps the toughest nut to crack for a newcomer to Bax. Again, the performance was remarkable for the way in which the players were able to integrate such disparate moods into a cogent whole. The audience applauded vociferously at the end ― and quite rightly too. It had proved to be a wonderful evening’s music-making and well worth the journey from London . Now perhaps for an all-Bax concert by the same performers in the Wigmore Hall.


© Graham Parlett 2006

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