Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Margaret Miller and Arnold Bax

Margaret is giving a viola recital at the Louisa Performing Arts Center today (Thursday), in which she'll be joined by Jeri Jorgensen on violin, Paul Nagem on flute, Sara McDaniel on piano, and, um, me. (I feel like the obvious answer to the question, "which one doesn't belong?")

I'm joining Margaret for the first movement of Arnold Bax's Sonata for Viola and Piano. It's an interesting piece, and I'm grateful to have had an opportunity to learn it.

Grossly oversimplified, most music that doesn't make it into the canon of accepted masterpieces is insufficiently worked out. The Gottschalks and Moszkowskis of the world sometimes have ideas on a par with Beethoven and Brahms; they just don't get as much out of them.

The Bax Sonata doesn't fit this pattern. If anything, Bax crams too much into it. He's continually altering and developing his themes, sometimes in extremely subtle ways. Near the end, for instance, the piano has a descending E-flat, D-flat, B, pungently harmonized over a sustained G; Bax immediately repeats the melodic motif a half-step higher, similarly harmonized over the same G. It serves a musical purpose, as Bax is preparing for a radiantly major ending, but few in the audience will notice the change in pitches.

Harmonically, it's extremely heterogeneous, alternating English modal harmonies, scraps of Debussy-like Impressionism, chains of chromatically altered secondary dominants, and even a few bars that wouldn't sound out of place in the Berg sonata. Sometimes he tries to reconcile them, as in the second statement of the second theme, in which a few extraneous chromatic chords in the piano part disturb the diatonic lyricism. Other times he just butts one harmonic system up against another without so much as a how-do-you-do.

The piece was written in 1923, and audiences of that period probably found this lack of harmonic unity more disturbing than today's audiences. In this respect it contains a streak of post-modernism lacking in that era's avant-garde productions. For instance, while Copland's 1930 Piano Variations are much more dissonant and modern-sounding than the Bax, I could tell within a week of starting to learn them when I was hitting a wrong note: It's that tightly written. With the Bax, I was goggling myopically at the music for a month, trying to figure out the harmonies.

The form is also interesting in a non-groundbreaking way. The sonata form is traditional; the proportions, anything but. The exposition is leisurely - more than half the movement, much of it consisting of a strangely repetitive transition to the second theme. The development is short, as are the extremely compressed recapitulation and coda. (The recapitulation begins in the wrong key - or actually, in no key at all, as the main theme returns in a whole-tone variant.) The intensity builds naturally with the compression.

It's an odd piece, but I love it, both for its gorgeous melodic material and for the imagination with which Bax treats it. And I admire Bax's courage in keeping it truly a viola sonata. Composers of chamber music sometimes succumb to a misplaced sense of fairness - one instrument played the theme, so the other(s) should get their chance - but Bax will have none of this. The themes are lyrical, and the viola is the more lyrical instrument, so that's where he concentrates the melodic interest. The piano part is difficult and intricately written, but I don't even play some of the themes.

Margaret plays the piece beautifully, and shares enough of my enthusiasm that we're going to at least attempt to learn the other two movements - a demonically difficult scherzo and a bleak, dissonant slow finale which turns consoling only at the last moment.

The concert is part of the Thursday Night Recital Series. The Louisa Center is located at the Colorado Springs School, 21 Broadmoor Avenue. (You can see a map at PeakRadar.com.) Tickets are $15 adults/$10 seniors; call 475-9747 for more information.


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