Bax: Sonata; Concert Piece and Trio for Viola and Piano; Legend

COMPOSERS: Bax
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Bax
WORKS: Sonata; Concert Piece and Trio for Viola and Piano; Legend
PERFORMER: Martin Outram (viola), Laurence Jackson (violin), Julian Rolton (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557784
Arnold Bax’s friendship with the pioneer viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis seems to have consistently stimulated his imagination, and the Sonata for Viola and Piano of 1920 is one of his finest works in any genre. From its intensely atmospheric opening through the violently dionysiac central Scherzo to the ambiguous resolution of the finale, this is highly imaginative music with genuinely original ideas. It’s the most important piece on this new Naxos release, but the programme valuably introduces us to some less familiar viola works intended for Tertis, of which the austere and melancholic Legend from 1929 is a work comparable in quality, if not in scale, to the Sonata. The early (1904) Concert Piece for Viola and Piano, despite its budding Irishisms, is not yet mature enough to sustain interest, but the delightful Trio in One Movement for Violin, Viola and Piano of two years later, which was Bax’s first substantial publication, is a real find.

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Only the Sonata has had much of a prior discography, but that includes a recording by Tertis himself with Bax at the piano made in 1929 (long unavailable) and a superbly eloquent version (Biddulph LAB 148, mono) from the 1930s by William Primrose with Bax’s inammorata, Harriet Cohen. While that has enormous authority it’s inferior in sound quality to this new, warmly-recorded Naxos account, and Outram proves himself a player in the Primrose mould, with sumptuous tone and sensitivity. Calum MacDonald