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Quality and clarity

British pianist Ashley Wass


In September 2004 Naxos will be releasing the first disc in a series devoted to the piano music of Arnold Bax, played by the pianist Ashley Wass. Naxos hopes to include more than just the solo piano music in the series and there are plans for Wass to record works with piano and orchestra, chamber music including the piano quintet, works for violin and piano (with Laurence Jackson from the Maggini String Quartet) and pieces for two pianos with Antti Siirala.

Wass had little experience of Bax when first approached about the project three years ago, but by the time it came to fruition last year, he had come to Bax through the orchestral music. Indeed the orchestral nature of Bax's lush, colouristic music was something which appealed to Wass.

The Bax piano sonatas are complex works and for Wass their greatest challenge is a structural one arising from their improvisational nature. Besides the issue of their structure, the works' other main problem is one of texture; Wass feels that there were a number of passages which were not too pianistic. He suggests that these challenges can best be overcome by giving the musical ideas time and space to breathe. Clarity is something which Wass looks for in piano playing and it is clarity which he has tried to bring to the sonatas; presenting their wide range of ideas and emotions in as clear a way as possible.

When writing his piano pieces, Bax notoriously ignored the limitations of one of his prime interpreters, the pianist Harriet Cohen who possessed small hands. But Wass did not find the technical demands outrageous, particularly compared to Cesar Franck's piano music as Franck possessed huge hands (Wass's disc of Frank piano music was recorded for Naxos in 1998).

With such a project, resurrecting neglected music, there is always a danger that some of the pieces would not stand up to re-evaluation. But Wass has found everything very worthwhile, feeling embarrassed that he did not know the music already and saddened that such terrific pieces are not part of core repertoire. He has included some of the pieces in future recital programmes but promoters can be reluctant to trust music which is perceived as unknown, too heavy and an acquired taste. The sonatas do require the listener to work, but the more effort that you put in the more rewarding the music is; Wass has received very positive audience responses when he has programmed Bax's music.

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Copyright © 2 September 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK


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