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Despite the attention given to Harriet Cohen’s three Russian Impressions (c1913) and Bax’s late Four Pieces (1947) – both receiving first recordings here – the main event on Mark Bebbington’s intelligently programmed disc is the Bax Sonata in E-flat (1921).

Better known as his First Symphony, the Sonata’s central Lento con molto espressione was significantly reworked in 1922 for the orchestral version. The white-hot intensity in the music may be a response to the loss of life in the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916, and Bebbington catches the music’s anger and grief superbly in playing of enormous range and power. The late John McCabe set the benchmark in his 1980s recording for Continuum, an account that still holds up very well, but Bebbington rises to its challenge with considerable panache. The ferocious opening Allegro movement is taken at quite a lick, slightly quicker than McCabe. So too is the Lento, though Bebbington is noticeably slower than McCabe in the march-like opening of the finale.

The passacaglia In the Night (1914) is beautifully paced, a terrific nocturne that deserves to stand with the best evocations of the night. Bebbington’s performance is idiomatically spot-on, as is that of Legend. The Four Pieces (1947) are lesser fare, pastiches almost, but make a nicely drawn succession of miniatures, even if they do not quite hang together convincingly.

Curiously, the booklet details the slow movement of Bax’s late B-flat Sonata which does not feature. Instead, we have Cohen’s delicate and evocative Russian Impressions, not great music but an interesting find. First-rate sound completes this splendid release.

GUY RICKARDS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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