BAX Piano Quintet in G minor BRIDGE Piano Quintet in D minor
The latest addition to Naxos’s extensive Bax discography teams Ashley Wass with the Tippett Quartet for a hugely impressive account of the large-scale Piano Quintet. It was written between
July 1914 and April 1915, and first performed privately in December 1917 at a Music Club Concert in London’s Savoy Hotel by the composer’s muse Harriet Cohen with the English String Quartet.
A mightily imposing utterance it is, too, brimful of strong invention (the slow movement in particular can boast a tune in Bax’s most gorgeously Irish vein), and evincing a lofty ambition, tumbling fantasy and slumbering organic power that points the way forward to his
great wartime trilogy of tone poems (The Garden of Fand, November Woods and Tintagel) as well as his cycle of seven symphonies.
There are three movements in all: the expansive opening Tempo moderato (marked “Passionate and Rebellious”) presents a
succession of hauntingly memorable themes that are destined for
bold transformation in the finale, while the central Lento serioso alternates passages of heady lyricism with those of a more ghostly, even sinister bent. Wass and the Tippett Quartet prove magnificently assured and clear-headed proponents, sifting Bax’s often startlingly imaginative textures with breathtaking skill, while at the same time quarrying every ounce of bewitching poetry and spooky mystery from the slow movement.
Perhaps David Owen Norris’s luxuriant 1989 recording with the
Mistry Quartet for Chandos (available again as a download) conveys
a greater sense of titanic struggle and epic sweep (it clocks in at
46’15” as against these newcomers’ 41’10”), but there’s certainly room in the catalogue for two such strikingly different views and no Baxian should miss hearing what Wass and company have to say about this ruggedly beautiful music.
The coupling is another fine Piano Quintet, that of Frank Bridge
(who, incidentally, played the viola part in the premiere of the
Bax). Completed in 1905, it was comprehensively overhauled seven years later: the first movement was virtually recomposed, piano textures lightened and (most significantly) the two middle
movements condensed into one of Bridge’s beloved, arch-like “phantasy” structures.
It’s a piece that finally seems to be coming into its own (this is, by
my reckoning, the fourth recording of it to appear within the last
18 months or so). Suffice it to say, Wass and the Tippett Quartet
do Bridge proud, their reading having exemplary polish, ardor and thrust to commend it, albeit without quite the songful flexibility and heartwarming spontaneity of the London Bridge Ensemble’s treasurable account on Dutton Epoch (the raptly hushed return of
the middle movement’s beguiling principal theme feels just a little
self-conscious in this latest version).
Even so, there’s still no reason to withhold an enthusiastic recommendation. What’s more, neither the production values
(Michael Ponder) nor annotation (Andrew Burn) can be faulted.
A peach of a disc, this, and a real steal at Naxos price.