REVIEW: Private Passions - Bax, Cohen

First recordings of two sets of piano pieces by Arnold Bax and Harriet Cohen (his charismatic muse and lover) adorn this latest helping of home-grown fare from the excellent Mark Bebbington. Cohen’s four Russian Impressions (published in 1915 by Augener) prove a charming find, the first two especially (‘Sunset on the Volga’ and ‘The Exile’) winning Bax’s approval. Bebbington lends them atmospheric and deftly affectionate advocacy, as he does the rather more substantial Four Pieces that Bax completed in March 1947. A skittish ‘Fantastic March’ (which slyly nods at The Happy Forest and the Fourth Symphony’s boisterous finale) and ‘Phantasie’ (by turns forceful and creamy) frame a tenderly songful ‘Romanza’ and fragrant ‘Idyll’.
However, the real meat in this uncommonly enterprising and generous programme comes with the large-scale Sonata in E flat that Bax completed in June 1921 and subsequently reworked as his First Symphony (composing an entirely new slow movement in the process). Aficionados will already know all about the lasting virtues of John McCabe’s pioneering version (Continuum, 11/92) and Michael Endres’s no less compelling account (Oehms, 10/06); suffice it to say, they should waste no time in hearing this newcomer too! With his rock-solid technical armoury and supreme composure, Bebbington brings thrilling power and intoxicating poetry to Bax’s turbulent, ruggedly beautiful inspiration, the sonata’s gorgeous Lento con molto espressione centrepiece delivered with especial perception.
Rounding off proceedings are magnificent performances of the slumberingly intense 1914 passacaglia In the Night (‘That piece means such a lot to me – I think I know its very soul’, Cohen wrote to the composer) and the 1935 Legend (a darkly brooding essay very much in the bardic spirit of the Third Piano Sonata, Northern Ballad No 2 and Winter Legends). Visitors to the Somm website can download an extra track, namely the central Lento espressivo of the so-called Salzburg Sonata - a Mozartian pastiche that Bax wrote as light relief after completing the ‘hippopotamus-like’ scoring of his 1937 orchestral march London Pageant. (At 1’46” listen out for a fetching idea destined to reappear in the slow movement of Bax’s Violin Concerto.)
In summary, a terrific issue. Both Graham Parlett’s annotation and Paul Arden-Taylor’s engineering are first-rate. Now, I wonder whether Bebbington might be persuaded to turn his attention of Bax’s four numbered piano sonatas.

Andrew Achenbach, Gramophone
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