BAX: Winter Legends; A Mountain Mood; A Hill Tune; Viola Sonata — Harriet Cohen, piano/ William Primrose, viola/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/Clarence Raybould — Dutton

by | Sep 5, 2005 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BAX: Winter Legends; A Mountain Mood; A Hill Tune; Viola Sonata
— Harriet Cohen, piano/ William Primrose, viola/ BBC Symphony
Orchestra/Clarence Raybould

Dutton CDBP 9751 mono, 76:33 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi) ****:

As much a social as a musical document, this disc attests to the
artistic as well as romantic liaison between pianist Harriet Cohen
(1985-1967) and composer Arnold Bax, who abandoned his wife and
children to engage, during WWI, in an extended love affair with Tobias
Matthay pupil Cohen, who was some thirteen years his junior. Bax wrote
several salon pieces as well as three large-scale concertos for Harriet
Cohen. Cohen premiered the Symphonic Variations in in 1920, and then
became the only pianist to champion the Winter Legends (1932) in the
composer’s lifetome. The original performance had Adrian Boult leading
the BBC Symphony Orchestra. After Cohen injured her right wrist 
in 1948, Bax wrote a left-hand concerto for her with which she enjoyed
some success at the Proms concerts of the early 1950’s.

When her facility with both hands returned, Cohen performed the Winter
Legends Concerto and subsequently recorded it with the BBC under
Raybould (26 November 1954). The music is not particularly facile,
having a daunting keyboard part which must have taxed Cohen’s
abilities, since she was notorious for having small hands that
prevented her from access to the major Romantic repertory. Angular and
occasionally dissonant and wiry, Bax’s music has an angular grace that
seems typical of British music between the wars, the musical phenomenon
described in detail in Constant Lambert’s study, Music, Ho!  The
second movement features an extended antiphon between piano, strings
and tympani. The horn part is rather distantly recorded. In three
movements and an Epilogue (Molto cantabile), the energies appear to
move from dark to light, a redemption from a long winter of discontent
to a blazing promise of spring. The opening of the third movement,
Molto moderato, could have influenced the sound-pictures of Alan
Hovhaness.

Bax wrote solo piano pieces with Harriet Cohen in mind; in 1915 he
composed A Mountain Mood, which Cohen recorded for Columbia, along with
A Hill Tune, on 20 October 1942. A Mountain Mood: melody and
variations, is a salon work akin to the Grieg lyric pieces, perhaps
cross-fertilized by Debussy and a hint of Faure, maybe Percy Grainger.
A Hill Tune exploits tinkling arpeggios in much the same way as its
companion, a British answer to Ravel or Liszt’s cascading water-pieces.
Cohen’s sensitive playing is not helped by Columiba’s shrill compressed
shellacs which still elicit a bit of hiss. The big work is really the
Bax Viola Sonata, first premiered by Lionel Tertis and Bax in November,
1922. Cohen and violist William Primrose recorded the piece as part of
an English Music Society project on 22 July 1937. Two outer slow
movements frame a brilliant rondo marked Allegro energico ma non troppo
presto. Walton adopted the same structure for his own Viola Concerto.
Bax’s writing for viola is quite expansive, reminiscent of the cross
between academic and bravura style in Hindemith’s Op. 11. Cohen has her
moment in the announcement of the first movement second subject. The
wicked aggression in the scherzo movement and the tenor of the opening
movement may reveal more than a hint of Franck, though Bax is wittier
in his rustic way. For those unfamiliar with Harriet Cohen’s
musicianship, the scherzo is proof enough of her capacity for
unbuttoned ensemble playing. The last movement is a sometimes
lugubrious affair, but it still offers Primrose an opportunity to
demonstrate why he was the natural successor to Lionel Tertis. An
obsessive riff in the viola eventually allows the textures to thin out,
although the mood remains stormy. While the lacquers still suffer some
tape hiss, the intensity of the playing — the yearning of the music —
are never less than beguiling.

–Gary Lemco

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