Arnold Bax: Chamber Music – Quintet for harp and Strings, Elegiac Trio, Fantasy Sonata for harp and viola, Sonata for flute and harp
Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
by Chia Han-Leon
Bax loved all things Irish, especially that associated with Romantic literature, such as the poetry of Yeats. There is a harp – symbol of Ireland – in each of these pieces, whose presence adds much to the palette of colours. The Elegiac trio, one movement in 9 minutes, is beautifully subtle, both quiet and joyful, yet poignant because it was written in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916, in which Bax’s friends were executed for political reasons.
I greatly enjoyed this album. Although I cannot claim to be an expert in the music, I must say that the performances by mobius (always small ‘m’, it seems) are a model of chamber playing. There is such a great sense of balance in their interplay. Their mastery of dynamic control is fantastic – whether it is all instruments together, or one taking centrestage, or one taking over from another.
Bax (left) is a composer I associate with his fascinating tone poems – November Woods, The Garden of Fand, and that majestic Tintagel. His quintessentially British touch for the pleasantly melancholy and meadowy beauty, has always had my attention. The Harp Quintet of 1919 is like that – it has moments of sorrow, drama, but also quiet and beauty.
The clean Naxos recording allows one to hear the softest undertones of the cello, the insistence of the violin, or the ebb and flow of the harp. Try the tranquillo of the Harp Quintet. I do love Ms Nicholls’ liquid harp tone. Another is the hushed opening of the Elegiac trio, which so subtly showcases each of the three musicians’ parts. It is such a delight when out of the lovely mists floats the flute, or the violin, and one almost forgets the harp in the background – but does not. This makes great music-playing.
In comparing this to a rival version on Hyperion (CDA66807), played by the Nash Ensemble, I find mobius’ reading of the Elegiac Trio somehow more natural, more smooth and unified – the Nash Ensemble’s instrumental sound is good, but I find their chamber chemistry does not capture my senses as magically as mobius does. The same goes for the Harp Quintet – the Nash Ensemble players sound too deliberate, too… almost clinical. They seem to play a little ‘too hard’, to hard-focussed on the score. In comparison, mobius conjures the music’s moods effectively without a sense of effort. They make the music sound very natural – and they evoke its aura, its magic. The fact that some of the pieces here are continuous multi-movement works (and tracked as such) further emphasizes the seamlessness of mobius’ sense of unity. Though the disc runs over 65 minutes, I found time passing quickly while listening to it.
Each of mobius’ players deserver praise: I like the way a lead instrument might sound even and plain when in the background, and then increase tonal colour when it is in the foreground of the score. Much credit to the wonderful players, including the two effectively matched violinists – evocative/insistent utterance, chillng tremolo, shifts of mood… .
What kind of music is this? It is not “Romantic” in the 19th-century sense, but akin to what we tend to (uselessly) call “Post-Romantic”. Melodies are not absent – there are many many passages of great lyric beauty, interspersed with wisps of many a thought-provoking feeling. The notes to the Naxos album as well as those on the Hyperion album are quick to point out that although the Elegiac Trio brings to mind Debussy’s own Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, Bax couldn’t possibly have copied in any way as Debussy’s work was only first performed 6 months after Bax completed his score.
But there you have it – there is a suggestion of something Impressionistic (in the crude sense) to this music. It is luscious, warm but also cool, pleasing but intellectually tasteful. Folk music appears to influence the Sonata for Flute and Harp, which adds a touch of familiarity to all the music here.
Bax’s scores in these chamber works seem to love to tease a bit as well, with lovely lilting lines coming out of nowhere. To this end I must highlight again how much I enjoyed flutist Lorna McGhee’s sensitive playing in this Naxos disc, which she displays again most exuberantly in the Sonata for flute and harp.
The four-movement Fantasy Sonata amply demonstrates the high calibre of playing in mobius – Ashan Pillai’s viola is warm of tone and evocatively handled, which I prefer to the Hyperion violist. Pillai makes a wonderful partner to Nicholls’ unobstrusive harp. The Lento expressivo is truly mysterious, and the final Allegro very lively.
A very enjoyable re-introduction for me (I’ve had that Hyperion disc for a few years now); do try it if you like flute-harp-string combinations.
The most intimate way Chia Han-Leon has ever interacted with a harp is to carry it for the harpist.
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