Saturday, 21 May 2011

Arnold Bax: Legend-Sonata for Cello and Piano

Arnold Bax’s relatively late Legend-Sonata for cello and piano was written in 1943. I guess that when I first heard this piece I imagined it to be something along the lines of The Tale the Pine Trees Knew – an exploration of some Celtic derring-do. However, this is a relaxed work in comparison to much that Bax wrote in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. The composer may have had his own personal reasons for describing this work as a ‘Legend’ however this piece is totally successful as purely absolute music. Pirie suggests that this work is endued with “a certain rich creative contentment.”

The sleeve notes of the Lyrita recording of this work gives a detailed outline of the form and progress of this work that bears study. Interestingly, Peter Pirie compares the first main theme to that of the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto –I am not so sure. Although this first movement has the appurtenances of ‘sonata’ form there is, like so much of Bax’s music a feeling of ‘phantasy’. This is a lovely opening movement that ends quietly. The second movement is a ‘lento espressivo’ which does not really change the mood of what has preceded it. Bax uses, as one of the principal themes, what sounds like a folk-tune that could easily have come from the pen of Jack Moeran. This music pervades the entire movement: the effect is music of heart rending beauty. This is surely one of the loveliest things that Bax ever wrote. However this mood of introspection is cast aside by the ‘rondo.’ This is a tune that is “built up on a flick of semiquavers.” It is really a classically constructed rondo that hardly deviates from the textbook. However Bax does introduce some rather interesting and sometimes disturbing music. There is one gorgeous episode that surely harks back to the slow movement. The work ends with “a flick of a diabolical tale.”

Surely this is one the composer’s great chamber works and deserves to be better known by all Baxians and English music enthusiasts.

This work can be heard on the Lyrita label with Florence Hooton and Wilfred Parry.

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