Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Valse (1931) , In Memoriam (1917), Fantasy Sonata for Viola and Harp (1927), Quintet for String Quartet and Harp (1919), Sonata for Flute and Harp (1928)
Marcia Dickstein, harp; Timothy Landauer, cello; Natalie Leggett, violin; Rene Mandel, violin; Simon Oswell, viola; Leslie Reed, english horn; Angela Wiegand, flute; Evan Wilson, viola
RCM Records 19081 TT=66:21
Welcome to the first in an occasional series of reviews of recordings that I have found for one dollar. Of course, you may not be as lucky as i was to find these gems in a thrift store or an estate sale, but I would encourage you to seek them out nonetheless, because they will all be recordings of special merit, and therefore you will not read any negative reviews in this column. Rather, the purpose of these entries is to turn you on to some fine recordings that you might have missed due to their limited distribution or their unusual repertoire.
Sir Arnold Bax was a master composer who is sadly left to the fringes of music history. He was adamant about composing works that were original, but also and more importantly beautiful and well crafted. Bax spoke in a finely honed musical language and with a supreme economy of gesture. There are never any wasted notes nor does his music smack of the grandiose pomposity of and Elgar or a Berlioz. Rather, he wrote with fluidity and simplicity that even Vaughan Williams or Benjamin Britten sometimes missed.
This delightful disc of works features the harp, an instrument of which he was most fond and for which he left a significant body of work. We owe it to the diligence of Marcia Dickstein for rooting out some of these heretofore neglected works. For her efforts in producing clean, contemporary editions of works that had been available only in manuscripts, she deserves a certificate of honor.
Performed here by a fine group of orchestral and studio musicians from the Los Angeles area, these superb performances transport the listener into a somewhat other-worldly realm. A place where emotions, although present are kept in check in favor of a more atmospheric and sensuous dreamscape.
Of particular merit is the gorgeous Fantasy Sonata for viola and harp, a work that is clearly modeled on Claude Debussy’s late excursions (sadly left unfinished) into a realm of ensemble in which there is no accompanist, but rather a equal matching of voices that express more of a musical conversation than a didactic lecture punctuated by chordal harmonies. Evan Wilson plays with a sonorous but understated tone which is well matched with Ms. Dickstein’s fleet and colorful playing.
The other standout is the Sonatina for flute and harp. The diminutive title will fool no one, at almost eighteen minutes this is a substantial work performed here to perfection by Ms. Dickstein and Angela Wiegand. The Debussy influence is again palpable. One need only give a repeat listen to his Sonata for flute, viola and harp to glean Bax’s inspiration.
With so much music at hand, it is rather rare that I play a disc multiple times in one sitting, but this garden of delights is the notable and gladsome exception. With the onset of Autumn weather, these dreamy and nocturnal works add incense to the darker hues of the changing season. This is a beautiful hour of music and well worth seeking out.