I have been an admirer of Mark Bebbington's playing for a considerable time. He is an impressive musician across a wide range of repertoire but it is his skill and advocacy playing British 20th Century piano music that has brought him particular acclaim - and rightly so. His surveys of the piano works of Ireland and Bridge at least match the best if not lead the field. However, until now, except for a recording of the late Piano Concertino, he has not recorded any of Bax's piano works. This new disc corrects that omission and given the outstanding quality of these performances one can only hope that it will be the first in a series.
Bax's piano music and the Sonatas in particular have been well served on disc in terms of quality of the performances. From Iris Loveridge on mono Lyrita, via Frank Merrick to Eric Parkin on Chandos, Ashley Wass on Naxos and Malcolm Binns on BMS all of these versions have something to contribute to the appreciation of this powerful music [there is also a cycle by Marie-Catherine Girod on Discovery Records that I have not heard]. However, none of those sets or cycles feature the Sonata in E flat that Bax wrote in 1921. The reason they do not is that it was not published as a Sonata but instead orchestrated by the composer as his Symphony No.1 (with a new slow movement added for the orchestral work). The Sonata was unperformed for sixty years in its original form. Since then, the great John McCabe made a typically insightful and impressive recording as did Michael Endres on Oehms. Endres' cycle - already over a decade old - remains the only one to include this Symphony/Sonata as part of the recorded group and it is part of a superb cycle played with exceptional power and technical address. This is an extraordinary work - in many ways more extraordinary as a piano work than the resulting symphony. Bax had already written his first two single movement sonatas when he played this work to Harriet Cohen and his friend Arthur Alexander. No surprise that they both urged Bax to orchestrate the work as a symphony. Quite often a chamber work or piano piece might imply a larger canvas - this piece spends nearly its entire length trying to burst out of the keyboard limitations. Bax had a phase of extraordinary creativity from roughly 1913 to 1935. This sonata embodies everything that Bax stood for - exalted Romanticism, visionary tempestuous virtuoso writing and barely contained passion. Qualities which faded, almost withered, in the last 18 or so years of his life. But in this Sonata his keyboard writing, of Lisztian scale and demands, is at its absolute peak, a musical torrent of inspiration. All of which implies a pianist of similar technical and musical abilities - which Bebbington undoubtedly is. I will always admire and enjoy Endres' performance for his objectivity and the clarity of his thought and technique. The slight price that is paid for Endres' approach is the loss of the "unashamed Romantic" that Bax styled himself. Bebbington is in contrast very much "In Legendary Mood" and by being so, closer to Bax's own performing aesthetic.
I can very easily imagine some listeners finding this music too unrelentingly stormy and heavily written for the instrument. Bebbington embraces these possible failings as virtues. The flood of sound he produces from the Steinway Model D in the CBSO Centre is a thing of wonder in itself, caught with superb fidelity by SOMM's regular team of producer Siva Oke and engineer Paul Arden-Taylor. For those familiar with the Symphony No.1 the two outer movements here are entirely recognisable. Where Bebbington is especially successful is in the musing sections where an orchestra can occasionally sound becalmed if the conductor does not allow for the subtle almost continuous ebb and flow that this music requires. Of course, it is easier for a solo pianist to achieve this than an 80 piece orchestra. Bebbington employs a massive dynamic range and the tone he draws from the piano is a joy in itself and his pacing is simply superb - the flow from slower to faster sections is achieved with a real sense of organic development - all too often Bax is criticised as being "sectionalised" - not here.
The central Lento con molto espressione [I assume SOMM's printing of "molta" on the booklet and back cover is a typo?] is - as mentioned - the only music that was not used in the final symphony. As such it’s a relative rarity for admirers of Bax's music to hear. Endres is very good in this movement too - his flowing tempo and relative coolness prevents the music being overburdened by the thickly filigreed textures that Bax writes. Endres' piano as recorded is slightly lighter in the bass than for Bebbington. There is a passage just two minutes into the movement of quite heart-stopping beauty where a little repeating figuration in the high treble sparkles over a bass led melody. At a push I would have to say Endres just pips Bebbington with his control of the various voicings here but both are rather wonderful. This is a gorgeous movement and one that deserves to be known much more than it is.
With the finale we are back onto more familiar Symphony No.1 territory. This is a stampingly powerful Scherzo-Finale which sounds spectacular in orchestral dress. But returning to it in its sonata incarnation I was surprised just how well it works here. Bebbington's pacing is again key with him building excitement and tension inexorably across the ten minute span. In all three movements Endres is faster than Bebbington. This matches their respective approaches; Endres lean and objective, Bebbington more overtly Romantic and happy to allow his climaxes to expand to epic proportions. This is a thrilling work thrillingly performed.
The disc as a whole is named - very appropriately - Private Passions. The rationale for this is the music has specific meanings for Bax and his long-time musical muse Harriet Cohen. Cohen role as inspiring much of Bax's music through to the late 1920's is well known. The 'private' element revealed in this recording are works that were either not published or performed in Bax's life. The In the Night (Passacaglia) from 1914 that follows the Sonata on this disc is a case in point. Graham Parlett - who along with Lewis Foreman - are the great Bax experts, contributes a superb liner note in which he relates correspondence between Cohen and Bax regarding this work and its personal significance for the two of them. The war years were the great flowering of their mutual passion and Parlett also notes that Bax wrote a poem with the same title although that dates from 1910 which is before Bax first met Cohen. Whatever the impetus for the creation of either poem or piano piece the latter is of a quality that means its non-publication during Bax's lifetime was for non-musical reasons. Eric Parkin included it on the fourth disc of his survey for Chandos and that is a typically sensitive and insightful performance. I am not sure anyone else has recorded it again until Bebbington. Bebbington is significantly more ruminative, indeed pensive than Parkin - to the point of being nearly two minutes slower which in a duration of just eight and half minutes (for Bebbington) is a major reconceptualising of the piece. To my ear Bebbington finds more of the Romantic undertow of the work with its passacaglia form subsumed by the ebb and flow of the musical drama. With Parkin, his flowing tempo allows the ear to hear the repeating musical material implicit in a passacaglia.
Receiving their first recordings are the set of Four Pieces from 1947. As Parlett says, although not published as a 'suite' per se, their contrasting moods would imply that they were intended to be performed together. Even the most devoted Bax acolyte would say these are rather small chips from the master's block. Bax the craftsman is intact but little if any inspiration remains. The textures are deliberately lighter, the emotions run at far lower temperatures, where once was passion is now a certain kind of wistfulness. Where once the slow passages implied visionary dreams now there is more than a hint of skilled note-spinning. Interestingly the second movement Romanza repeats the effect of the Symphony/Sonata slow movement with a treble ostinato over a bass melody and in fact this is a charming moment. Parlett accurately describes the third movement Idyll as introducing a pastoral element which again Bebbington is excellent at portraying - a distant Land of Lost Content. The closing Phantasie rises from a chromatic swirl into a stamping figure that is directly reminiscent of Bax's earlier stormy works but here he cannot quite summon up the energy or scale that he was able to achieve decades earlier. That said, this is the movement in which the blood seems to course most powerfully through Bax's veins. By no means 'important' Bax piano music but it is wonderful to have them in the recorded catalogue at last in such convincing performances.
I must admit I did not realise that Harriet Cohen had composed herself. Here Bebbington performs her four movement Russian Impressions. The scale of each movement and indeed the music within each movement never aspires to the sweep and grandeur that Bax attempts. These are pastel sketches to his large scale oils. But that said, Cohen's compositional skill here is precisely not to try and over write her material. These are more overtly pictorial works and Cohen chooses a simple mood or picture, expresses that and finishes. The longest Cohen movement is a minute shorter than the shortest Bax work presented here. The third movement The Old Church at Wilna is simply effective in evoking a chant-like melody over the chiming of bells. By now Bebbington's excellence at perfectly projecting both the mood and the music comes as no surprise. Again, he shows his innate musicianship by not trying to give this simple and appealingly direct music more weight than it can bear.
The CD is completed by another relative Bax rarity - the Legend of 1935. Again Parkin's 4th volume of his survey provides the only direct comparison and again Parkin is quicker than Bebbington although only by half a minute. "Legend" is one of those term or titles that appears quite a lot in Bax's work often implying some extra-musical but non-specific heroic tale. Bebbington is willing to embrace this sense of the dramatic much more than Parkin and the result is wholly more successful on this new disc. As a piano work its significance for admirers of Bax is that it is his last real hurrah in this style. The post 1935 works are either watered down reminiscences - as per the Four Pieces discussed earlier, or are slighter variations or pastiches. So this Legend can reasonably be seen as Bax's farewell to his own instrument as a vehicle for his most personal and profound utterances. An apt way to finish the disc therefore.... unless one counts the extra download that purchasers can access from the SOMM website of just such a pastiche. Its the slow movement of the Salzburg Sonata that Bax wrote as an affectionate pastiche. Parkin again provides the comparison and it is he who takes a much broader tempo here than Bebbington. I have to say I like both approaches - for all the faux Classsicism of the work Parlett notes that Bax incorporated music from this singing slow movement into his violin concerto.
This disc is a joy in every respect. Hopefully SOMM will encourage Bebbington to record more Bax. The presentation of the disc is absolutely up with the standard of excellence that SOMM regularly achieve including archive photographs of Bax and Cohen together as well as the liner having an excellent colour reproduction of Paul Corder's famous portrait of the composer. As ever, it is something of a shock to compare the gaunt and pensive faced young man of Corder's portrait with the florid-faced 'old' man of the later photographs. Parlett's liner is a model of clarity, information and concision although his comment that the love affair between Bax and Cohen "would continue for the rest of his life" would seem to run contrary to information in Foreman's definitive biography of the composer. The excellent engineering captures the fine CBSO Centre Steinway in very truthful sound even at the point when the music challenges just what such an instrument can sustain. The standard format CD is exceptionally generously filled running to over 79 minutes along with the 'bonus' track of the Salzburg Sonata an additional seven and a half. If I was being very picky, I would say the sample rate of the download at 192 kps was rather disappointing. My only other observation would be that I wonder why the Sonata was placed first on the disc. As both a piece and the performance this titanic work should surely close the recital. But that is a small concern when placed against the all-round excellence of this superb disc. One for both the dedicated Bax collector and the yet-to-be converted.