Bax • Cohen
Bax: Piano Sonata in E flat; In the Night; Four Pieces; Legend; Cohen: Russian Impressions
Mark Bebbington (piano)
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0193 79:20 mins
The album is entitled Private Passions, of which Arnold Bax, its featured composer, had plenty in his turbulent life. The passion most evident is his love for the pianist Harriet Cohen, which wrecked his marriage but lifted his soul, though his feelings for Ireland and the Celtic world also appear. Whatever the source of the volcanic outbursts in Bax’s E flat major Sonata of 1921 – quickly remodelled on completion as his Symphony No. 1, the lava tumbles out with astonishing force from Mark Bebbington, who plays with tremendous authority, supported by a vivid recording with an appropriately wide dynamic range. In its orchestrated symphonic form, where a despairing elegy replaces the Sonata’s reflective slow movement, the music writhes with a tumult of colours; but Bebbington proves that Bax’s first thoughts, testing piano and pianist to the limit, have their own validity and power.
Such, indeed, is this sonata’s impact that you need the album’s lighter items just to clear your head. If Cohen’s Russian Impressionsprove inconsequential, Bax’s Four Pieces from 1947 have more meat on the bone; both of these are first recordings. Pitched midway in density of thought, In the Night drifts from dream to frenzy to further dreaming, a journey most persuasively captured by Bebbington. The oddest music, a movement from Bax’s Salzburg Sonata, an 18th-century pastiche, was squeezed out of the disc itself, but can be accessed on Somm’s website. Whatever his passions, private or public, Bax does what all worthwhile composers do: he keeps springing surprises.