Rare Piano Music by Arnold Bax

Recording of the Month

For her debut recording for Usk Recordings, pianist Natalia Williams-Wandoch has selected an intriguing programme of hitherto unrecorded music by the great, but somewhat neglected, English composer Arnold Bax.



As she writes in her excellent booklet notes,

“I hope that you will find this unique and rewarding music as bewitching as I have done”.

Well, let’s find out…

Natalia Williams-Wandoch

If the music contained in this recording is new to most listeners, so too will be the performer, pianist Natalia Williams-Wandoch.

Natalia started performing at the age of eight, first appeared as soloist with orchestra when she was eleven, and performed the complete Etudes Op.10 by Chopin in the composer’s house in Żelozowa Wola whilst still a student.

She studied at the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Academy of Music, Poznań, before entering the Royal Academy of Music in London, where her teachers included Vanessa Latarche and Thalia Myers.


photograph by Harry Rafique

She now performs widely as soloist and chamber musician, with a strong emphasis on Romantic, Impressionist and contemporary music.

Arnold Bax and the piano

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was born into a wealthy family in Streatham, London, and encouraged by his parents to pursue a career in music. As a man of independent means, he was able to devote his life whole-heartedly to composition and writing.

In his own words, Bax was an ‘unabashed romantic, but as his style matured his music also bore the influence of impressionism, pastoralism, and the sprit of celtic landscape and legend. He later embraced classical forms, composing seven symphonies, string quartets, and several piano sonatas (four of which bear numbers).

In a biographical note about Bax written in the 1970’s, Christopher Palmer concluded:

“After his death his music fell into an oblivion the clouds of which are only just beginning to clear.”

One might argue that those clouds are still much in evidence, although a growing body of Bax’s music now exists on record, and concert halls have never been without the splendid symphonic poem Tintagel, a deservedly popular piece in which the composer’s various musical aspirations and aesthetic ideals converge to magnificent effect.

A more recent resurgence of interest in Bax’s piano music has undoubtedly been much helped by splendid recordings of the Sonatas by Ashley Wass and Michael Endres. Bax was himself an accomplished pianist, having studied with the great pioneering pedagogue Tobias Matthay at the Royal Academy; he was famously adept at score reading, bringing orchestral colours to life at the piano.

The Recorded Programme

In her CD booklet notes, Natalia Williams-Wandoch writes:

“The repertoire on this album consists of previously unrecorded piano works by Arnold Bax. The selection includes some of his earliest compositions (Two Hungarian Dances from Clavierstücke 1897-98, and Sonata in D minor, 1900), two poems for piano in his mature style, written when the composer was in his early 30’s, and a sonata–pastiche composed later in life, probably as respite from large–scale orchestral works.”

The programme begins with Nympholept – poem for piano (1912), a piece which perhaps conforms most closely to the preconceptions that lovers of Tintagel will have. Its title borrowed from a poem by Swinburne, the piece impressionistically conveys a state of bliss inspired by nymphs. Although essentially a tone poem for piano, the piece has a taut structure built around two themes, developed, and ultimately combined in counterpoint before the piece dissolves to a dreamy conclusion.

Next we are treated to the unnumbered Sonata in B flat (“Salzburg”) (?1937), a delightful if somewhat self-conscious exercise in neoclassicism. The four movements follow the expected format of a Viennese classical sonata.

The Sonata suggests motific echoes of Haydn and early Beethoven, with a clarity of texture one finds in Mozart’s piano music. But ultimately, the dramatic outline, harmonic design, and Ländler-like third movement remind me most of all of Schubert. Importantly, every movement here is its own masterpiece, together adding up to a rather fabulous work which deserves more attention.

Williams-Wandock plays the Sonata with a suppleness, elegance and charm which truly brings the composer’s intentions to life in this outstanding reading.

The Two Hungarian Dances (1897-98) which follow our worthwhile, if lightweight pieces, breaking up the program and leading to another early work, the Sonata in D minor of 1900.

Here, the pianist turns to an unpublished manuscript kept at the Royal Academy of Music, where Bax began his studies in 1900. Only the first movement survives, a ripely Romantic piece somewhat indebted to Brahms, and with a textbook Sonata-form design. Williams-Wandoch brilliantly contrasts the gorgeous second subject with the more volatile first, while ramping up considerable drama in the bridge passages and Development. This is genuinely exciting stuff!

Finally we arrive at The Happy Forest, another “poem for piano” from Bax’s mature phase, completed in 1914. This provides a sparkling, imaginative, and delightful counterpart to the Nympholept which opened the programme. Here again Williams-Wandoch is in her element, dazzling the listener with a compelling and evocative performance that brings this little-known piece to life.

Conclusion

Natalia Williams-Wandoch’s Piano Music by Arnold Bax is an enterprising and significant release.

Recorded at St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford by David Wright, produced by John Rowan, the sound is both clean and intimate.

Listening to this programme of works, drawn as they are from the different stages in Bax’s artistic development, the listener might be forgiven for not recognising them as the works of one and the same composer. They reveal Bax to be multi-faceted, writing distinctive and distinguished music in a variety of hues; ultimately his unifying voice speaks most clearly with repeated listens.

Natalia Williams-Wandoch reveals herself to be a sympathetic interpreter, capable of both imagination and insight in her performances of these hitherto unknown pieces. The clarity of her tone and texture in the Sonata in B flat and Hungarian Dances is matched by the bravura of her playing in Nympholept, the Sonata in D minor and The Happy Forest. Here, the most virtuosic passages seem to pass with ease.

This release is obviously a must-have for collectors and fans of Arnold Bax’s music; for the rest it comes highly recommended, offering a delicious and varied introduction to this composer’s neglected but superb piano works.

I really can’t summarise it any better than the pianist herself, so in conclusion must concur with her:

“I hope that you will find this unique and rewarding music as bewitching as I have done”.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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