Bax: Violin Sonata No. 2; Violin Sonata No. 3; Violin Sonata in F

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WORKS: Violin Sonata No. 2; Violin Sonata No. 3; Violin Sonata in F
PERFORMER: Robert Gibbs (violin), Mary Mei-Loc Wu (piano)
Bax tends to be judged today on his symphonies and tone poems. Do we do him an injustice? Atmospheric and stirring as they can be, the orchestral works are very variable in quality, rhetorical overload being a recurring problem. But in the chamber works there’s less of the grandiose orator and more of the poet. That’s particularly true of the violin and piano works. The Celtic influence is as strong as ever, but where Bax’s orchestral sound has roots in Russian and German soil, there’s a delicate sensuousness in his piano-writing which often suggests Gallic models. Still, these three works don’t simply duplicate each other in mood and character. While the Second Violin Sonata is in Bax’s best ‘dark dreaminess’ vein, the relatively acerbic folk-dance finale of the Third Sonata leans closer to Bartók – or at least to Enescu – than Bax’s reputation might lead you to expect – so the mellow expansiveness of the F major Sonata (discarded after Bax arranged it very successfully as the Nonet of 1930) makes another effective contrast. The players obviously believe in the music and respond sensitively to its many shifts in mood and colour. The recording is very close to the violinist, though this means that Robert Gibbs can deliver extreme pianissimos in a near-confidential whisper without fear of being overwhelmed by the piano – the music clearly benefits from that. Stephen Johnson