Bax, Bridge Piano Quintets

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bax,Bridge
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Bax: Piano Quintet in G minor; Bridge: Piano Quintet in D minor, H49a
PERFORMER: Ashley Wass (piano); The Tippett Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572474

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Arnold Bax’s Piano Quintet of 1914-15 is undoubtedly one of his most important utterances – a stormy, windswept manifesto of ultra-Romantic feeling (the huge first movement is actually marked ‘Passionate and Rebellious’) on an essentially symphonic scale. It’s the precursor not of the symphonic poems that came immediately after it but of Bax’s symphonies of the 1920s, and seems continually to be striving to burst the restraints imposed by the five-instrument medium.

Ashley Wass and the Tippett Quartet rise magnificently to its challenges, striking the perfect balance between sheer OTT grandiloquence and intense and genuine feeling. More volatile and extreme than the impressive rival account from David Owen Norris and the Mistry Quartet (Chandos), this is a thrilling performance with the authentic all-or-nothing flavour. The slow summatory epilogue – first of many in Bax’s output – really does give an impression of all passion spent after an epic struggle. 

Frank Bridge’s D minor Quintet has received two other excellent recordings recently – by the Goldner Quartet with Piers Lane (Hyperion), and the Bridge Quartet with Michael Dussek (Somm). It’s a work of a different temper, but as played here seems to have been infected with the spirit of the Bax. It’s a very dramatic, not to say wild and woolly reading, playing up the oppositions of mood and dynamics for all they’re worth.

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At the very opening Wass almost smothers the opening string theme in the surging enthusiasm of his accompanying chromatics. (Then again, he is balanced rather forward.) It’s certainly an invigorating account, but one looks in vain for the elegance and restraint that its rivals bring to it at the appropriate points. Still, this is an important release, especially for the Bax. Calum MacDonald