Bax: Winter Legends; Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex); Saga Fragment

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COMPOSERS: Bax
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Winter Legends; Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex); Saga Fragment
PERFORMER: Ashley Wass (piano); Bournemouth SO/James Judd
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572597

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Bax’s long, on-off liaison with the pianist Harriet Cohen drew much music from him, including these three works for piano and orchestra. The title of Winter Legends of 1930, suggesting yet another collection of Anglo-Saxon mood-pieces, is deceptive: this is a large-scale, three-movement piano symphony in all but name, with the piano in integrated dialogue with the orchestra rather than in sharp, concerto-like relief. Its solo part is nonetheless demanding.

The music is fairly consistently dark and brooding – this is Bax in Sibelius-influenced, Icelandic-saga mode – although there’s no shortage of ethereal poetry to offset this mood, notably in the slow central movement which is full of Baxian atmospherics. While some of the material elsewhere isn’t quite as exciting as its composer seems to think it is, everything is superbly developed and orchestrated, and there’s no mistaking the cumulative power of a major statement.

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Morning Song, written in 1947, is an unremarkable piece of Sussex landscape-evocation. Saga Fragment – an arrangement for piano, trumpet, percussion and strings of Bax’s 1922 Piano Quartet – is much more striking, with a craggy, almost harsh edge to the music that must have startled its first audiences during Cohen’s 1933 American tour. Ashley Wass brings impressive clarity and firepower to all three works; James Judd and the Bournemouth orchestra accompany with sharp-focus excellence. Malcolm Hayes