Bax: Symphonic Variations; Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and orchestra

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COMPOSERS: Bax
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphonic Variations; Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and orchestra
PERFORMER: Ashley Wass (piano); Bournemouth SO/James Judd
CATALOGUE NO: 8.570774

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A major score from perhaps his best period, Bax’s monumental Symphonic Variations was written in 1916-18 at the height of his torrid affair with Harriet Cohen, and in tribute to her: but he wrote the piano part for his own large hands, not her small ones, so it was hardly heard as he originally composed it till the 1960s.

Nor has it been played much since, though its Rachmaninov-like sweep and flamboyant pianism should recommend it to the concert platform. If the last two of its seven sections are rather diffuse, for most of its length it is Bax at his strongest.

Joyce Hatto recorded it back in 1970 with Vernon Handley, but till now the only CD competitor has been Margaret Fingerhut’s excellent version for Chandos with Bryden Thomson and the LPO. My impression is that the Bournemouth Symphony on this new Naxos version is a little less tidy in ensemble.

Ashley Wass and James Judd, however, seem to find an extra degree of rhythmic excitement in the bravura ‘Strife’ variation, and Wass’s playing of the big solo at the start of the finale is eloquent, so on balance I think this is now the benchmark for this work.

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The left-hand Concertante, also written for Harriet Cohen after she injured her right hand in 1949, is a slighter piece, though still an entertaining and enjoyable one. Here again there is a Margaret Fingerhut rival on Chandos, this time with Vernon Handley, but again it seems to me that Wass has extra vigour in the outer movements. Calum MacDonald