NEW COMPACT DISC RELEASES
SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE
June 20, 1999
Studio Portrait of Sir Arnold
Bax in 1945
No. 2, November Woods
Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by
by Ian Lace
reason for reviewing November Woods before the Symphony will become
clear later so please bear with me. Bax's Tone Poem November Woods,
written in October 1916, not only depicts the turbulence of an
Autumn storm as it wracks a woodland but it also reflects the
composer's passion for Harriet Cohen. The lovers would meet
clandestinely in a small pub in Amersham near the woods,
covering the nearby Chiltern Hills, where Bax had once
sheltered from such a storm.
Amersham sets the scene:
.....Storm, a mad painter's brush, swept sky and land
With burning signs of beauty and despair
once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake
in our hearts tears stung and the old ache
more than any God would have us bear.
Then in a drowsy town the inn of dreams
Shuts out awhile October's sky of dread
Drugged in the wood reek, under the black beams
Nestled against my arm her little head
music of November Woods is Bax's musical realisation of the hostile
elemental forces and passionate sentiments of these verses. One of
Bax's loveliest romantic passages, sensuous, tender and passionate,
is bracketed by stormy violence that is both sudden and sustained as
boughs creak and branches heave under howling gales, driving rain
and flashes of lightning. Lloyd-Jones's evocation is every bit as
thrilling and vivid as that of
Boult (on Lyrita SRCD 231). I must say that I
also admire Bryden Thomson more leisurely, but not unexciting,
approach on CHAN 8307 in really opulent Chandos sound.
magnificent Symphony No. 2 was written between 1924 and 1926. It is
the second episode in the continuing saga that is Bax's seven
symphony cycle. Its first movement catapults us straight into the
violent world that
was unleashed in the First Symphony (1921-22).
As Lewis Foreman stated in his notes for the 1971 Myer Fredman
recording of this work (Lyrita LP SRCS. 54): "The mood in this
movement is that of November Woods in which an
emotional crisis was depicted in terms of
stormy nature, and is even more convincingly argued." Bax
described it as being "heavy with impending catastrophe."
The music is passionate and tempestuous, heavy with conflict
the music tugging and grinding against itself
fitfully with only brief moments of respite.
second movement is reminiscent of Holst in his unworldy mode until
Bax quickly asserts his own style with the horn call in the second
and third bars. This movement is predominantly lyrical and
passionate. Lewis reminded us that it had been suggested that
the whole work might be viewed as "one vast love song."
Personally I think this is very much of an over-simplification but
certainly the slow movement might qualify for such a description.
Lloyd-Jones realises all its tenderness and passion and his climax
hits you with all the force of a tidal wave. Lloyd-Jones
interpretation of this symphony is a triumph - read with scorching,
white-heat intensity. The ferocity of the catastrophic finale comes
across with great impact. Lloyd-Jones also heeds the detail too.
Note that extraordinary passage about 5 minutes into the finale
where Bax creates a sound world entirely of his own a magic domain
created by imaginative use of harps, tremolando strings in
mid-register, percussive piano and close
snare drumming in crescendo.
I would just
quote again from Lewis's notes: "The psychological
interrelation of the first three symphonies of Bax has often been
remarked upon, but is worth restating. The demon that possessed Bax
in the First Symphony is really only presented in that work; having
relieved himself of its stating, Bax expiates it in this Second
Symphony, which can be regarded as a chart of his spiritual and
emotional wanderings in the mid 'twenties. Thus in the Third
Symphony, written in 1928 and 1929, after the composer had
discovered what was to become his artistic retreat at Morar in
Scotland, he attempted a stylistic and emotional synthesis finding
repose in the serene Epilogue."
I wonder if
Naxos really appreciate the value of their investment in this
Lloyd-Jones Bax cycle. The release of its component parts seems slow
and widely spaced in the extreme and its presentation with only a
four page booklet (with no language translations) seems niggardly.
And as yet there seems to be no news of the project's completion.
Keith Anderson's notes are scholarly. He tends to have got lost in
the detail of the notes rather than communicating the equally if not
more essential human psychological and elemental elements of these
colleague Richard Adams agrees with me that this new Lloyd-Jones
album now supersedes the other existing Chandos recording with
Bryden Thomson. Personally, I think it is the equal of Myer
Fredman's 1971 Lyrita recording which I hope one day we shall be
able to more properly assess in a refurbished digital CD edition. As
Richard has mentioned, Fredman had the huge advantage of an inspired
LPO and a much better recording engineer.
Richard has also commented (and I would
generally agree) "...that the sound on the Naxos Bax 2 is
inferior to the sound given to Naxos Bax 1 where the strings have
much more body. Bax 2 was recorded first and I suspect Naxos
had not yet figured out how to record in the
Glasgow Hall and Lloyd-Jones was relatively new to both the RSNO and
Bax. Given all that, I think he did an admirable job and he
certainly displays a strong feeling for Bax and
a command of Bax's symphonic structures."
On that last point I agree absolutely!
the Bax symphonies will someday receive the popular attention they
so obviously deserve, I predict at least three of his seven
symphonies will come to be ranked with those of Elgar and Vaughan
Williams as the greatest examples of British music in that form.
While Bax's Third Symphony was for many years his most popular
symphony, its reputation in recent years has
suffered (rather unfairly, I think) in comparison with those of the
Fifth, Sixth and Second Symphonies which are regarded by most
Baxians as his most characteristic and brilliant orchestral works.
Surely, one listen through of this new Naxos recording of Bax's
Second Symphony with David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Royal Scottish
National Orchestra should convince any sympathetic listener of
Bax's limitless musical imagination and brilliance at writing for a
large symphony orchestra.
Symphony is the most deeply personal of Bax's works, which is saying
a great deal considering how much of his music is autobiographical.
He poured more of himself into this work than any other. Its
composition consumed him for the greater part of two years and at
its completion, he said he felt physically and emotionally
exhausted. Any successful performance of this work must convey
the deeply troubled state of mind the composer was going through at
the time of its composition. David Lloyd-Jones' performance
most certainly succeeds in this regard. From the unbelievably
ominous opening with its bass drum roll and sinister motif for cor
anglais, clarinet and bassoon through the middle movement's
impassioned outbursts for organ and running strings to that most
desolate and inconsolable of Bax's famous epilogues,
Lloyd-Jones' interpretation is one that emphasizes the dramatic and
descriptive elements of the score. His fastidious attention to
detail uncovers a wealth of instrumental color and invention.
Naxos has provided a very clean but also very dry recording which
allows the listener to hear much more of what is going on in the
orchestra than could be heard on the Chandos recording with Bryden
Thomson. I myself would have welcomed a little more ambient
warmth which might have provided more richness to the string tone.
The nearly 30-year old recording made by Lyrita with Myer Fredman
conducting the London Philharmonic is still the preferred recording
in terms of sound.
Naxos recording is in almost every way preferable to the Chandos
recording. Lloyd-Jones' interpretation is as spacious as
Thomson's but he is much more successful in navigating the intricate
shifts in tempo and mood and, most importantly, in keeping the music
moving. So often with Thomson's Bax the impression is
given of the music being pulled out of shape in order to accommodate
that conductor's desire to wallow in Bax's gorgeous harmonic
textures. Lloyd-Jones is a much more disciplined conductor,
and like that greatest of all Baxians, Vernon Handley, his aim is
clearly set at giving the music shape and assuring that its
structure holds together. Mention should also be made of
Fredman's Lyrita account which is currently unavailable. That
fiery performance is a classic and nicely compliments this weightier
and more broadly conceived performance. Its release is an
absolute must but in the meantime I want to wish this new Naxos disc
every success because I believe it could make many new friends for
Bax and this symphony in particular. I can't think of a
more underrated masterpiece in British music.
work on this disc is November Woods. The standard recording by
which all new versions of this work are judged is Sir Adrian Boult's
definitive account on Lyrita with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Both Neville Marriner and Bryden Thomson give similarly conceived
performances which ultimately fail to impress as much as the
Boult. Lloyd-Jones, perhaps wisely, approaches this work
differently. His is the more literal interpretation of a
violent autumn storm with the more introspective elements of this
tone poem being underplayed. This is a brilliant, on the
edge-of-your-seat performance which I suspect will be controversial
but which also goes to show that great music can be played in more
than one way. The playing by the Royal Scottish National
Orchestra is both works is sensitive and virtuosic. I now look
forward to Lloyd-Jones' recording of the beautiful Third Symphony
which is scheduled for release later this year.
Memoriam, Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra
The Bard of the Dimbovitza, Jean Rigby
(soprano); Margaret Fingerhut (piano);
BBC Philharmonic conducted by Vernon Handley
Chandos CHAN 9715 [76:40]
by Ian Lace
These are all
premiere recordings and most welcome additions to the Bax
discography. How splendid the orchestral version of In Memoriam
sounds; Vernon Handley and the BBC Philharmonic give a really
spine-tingling performance. Dating from 1916, In Memoriam
commemorates Pádraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Dublin
uprising, executed soon after the rebellion was quashed. Bax was
clearly greatly moved when writing this music for it conveys all the
anguish he felt at learning about all the suffering in his beloved
Ireland and of the veneration he felt for Pearse. Readers of Bax's
Farewell, My Youth may recall how Bax remembered meeting the
martyred hero: "Scarcely had Pearse shaken hands shyly than he
sat down by the fire and stared into the blaze as though absorbed in
a private dream but his eyes were lit with the unwavering flame of
the fanatic. Somebody said, 'Pearse wants to die for Ireland
you know.' Indeed he did not have much longer to wait before his
desire was granted. As he was leaving he said to his host, 'I
think your friend Arnold Bax may be one of us. I should like
to see more of him.'...I could not forget the impression that
strange death-aspiring dreamer [ Pearse] made upon me when on Easter
Tuesday 1916 I read, by Windermere's shore, of that wild,
scatter-brained but burningly idealist adventure in Dublin the day
before. I murmured to myself, 'I know that Pearse is in
Bax had fallen
deeply in love with all things Irish and the English censor later
declared his verses, written under his pseudonym, Dermot O'Byrne, to
be subversive. In Memoriam includes the theme that Bax later used
for Mr Brownlow in his score for the film Oliver Twist but here it
is treated with that extra passion and deeper conviction appropriate
to Pearse. In Memoriam is part-elegy, part-funeral march, and partly
a furious remonstration against a cruelly suppressed bid for Irish
independence. (Perhaps Bax, in more reflective and prudent mood, put
it aside for it was never heard and indeed, until recently it was
thought that Bax had never orchestrated it). Marching rhythms
with insistent side drum and bugle calls contrast with music that
suggests Irish Elysian Fields fit for heroes. A wonderful musical
Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra was written at
Storrington in 1948 for Harriet Cohen who had injured her right
hand. Lewis Foreman, writing in his book, Bax, A Composer and his
Times regarded this work as "watery" and "...[it] is
not a successful work, and unfortunately for Bax's reputation had
the misfortune of being widely played for several years. The
critical sneers it received, were by implication, extended to the
rest of his music... Nevertheless, Left Hand Concertante, patently
Bax's worst extended work was widely heard. The first movement is
laboured although there are some attractive ideas. The slow movement
is probably the best; beautiful if limited...But the theme of the
finale, a rondo, is tawdry. His heart was not in the work. He wrote
to the Dutch cellist-composer Henri van Marken during its
composition: 'I find it terribly difficult to think of anything
effective for the one hand...' Except in the finale, Bax seldom
brings the soloist away from the lower half of the keyboard, and so
the left-hand limitation is thus rather more pronounced than it
might have been. Ravel in his left-hand concerto, which Harriet
never played, allowed his soloist a much wider compass..."
In an interview with Colin Anderson reproduced in this CD's booklet,
Vernon Handley comments: "Margaret [Fingerhut] showed
immediately that it's not directionless - It's very clean and clear.
I admire in Bax that he doesn't mind writing something simple. By
terming it 'Concertante' he's saying that the orchestral role is as
important as the soloist's...He's written - better than Britten
(Diversions) and as well as Ravel - something that uses the
left-hand colour and register extremely well. The Concertante
occupies a lighter emotional world but he touches moments of depth
as he does in every work...."
individual listener must decide. For myself, I found the slow
movement to be the most appealing and in the sensitive hands of
Fingerhut and Handley, often beautiful. The opening movement has
many Baxian characteristics, including northern-mythological-type
figures but at some points I felt these were caricatured and I could
not dismiss from my mind's eye a picture of North American Indians
that the music seemed to create - maybe it was "oddities"
like these that attracted such derision? The rhythmically
exhilarating final Rondo is an odd mix of the sturdy and heroic with
some grotesque and quirky figures plus some intriguing Brahmsian
influences. Clearly Fingerhut and Handley have brought out the very
best in this oddity amongst Bax's major works.
of the Dimbovitza was composed in 1914 and it clearly shows the
influence of the Russian composers, that so impressed Bax in his
earlier years, as well as the French impressionists. The Bard
of the Dimbovitza comprises Romanian Folk Verses collected from the
peasants by Héléne Vacaresco and translated by Carmen Sylva (the
nom de plume of Queen Elizabeth of Romania who was probably was more
involved in their composition than she admitted) and Alma Strettel.
Published in London in 1892, they became as popular as Omar Khayyam
although they bore as much direct relevance to Romanian folk-poetry
as Fitzgerald's verse had to Persian verse. Bax eschews any
local Romanian colour. Most of the poems in The Bard of the
Dimbovitza are designated as 'Luteplayer songs' or 'Spinning songs'.
The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Sheherazade is immediately
apparent in the beginning of the opening "Gypsy Song"; and
there are echoes of Tchaikovsky later ('There where on Sundays...').
It is dreamy, sultry and sensual with Bax richly evoking lines like:
'The brook ripples by so clearly there...' The second song,
the ghostly and mysterious "The Well of Tears" again is
sumptuous but chilling too as the singer sees spectres at the bottom
of a well full of tears. "Misconception" appears to be
about lovers' embarrassed silences whereas simple confessions
of love would have eased everything and saved the sadness that
Bax later implies. This is a more fragile
creation and nearer to the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy.
In the more light-hearted "My Girdle I Hung on a Tree-top
Tall", with Bax's cheeky cuckoo figures, the singer, a clearly
head-strong and independent young woman scorns the attentions of a
young man. Here Rigby has to sing a dialogue between swain and maid.
The latter's arrogant scorn is well represented but the former's
masculine ardour could have been more strongly communicated.
The final song, "The daughter" (clearly from Bax's
treatment, a spinning song) is, again, another dialogue piece, this
time between a young girl, poetic, naive and eager for love and her
mother disillusioned and laconic. Rigby, in the main, sings
sensitively and expressively with warmth and a fine sense of the
lines of the songs and Handley provides rich, evocative support.
This album is a must for all Bax enthusiasts.