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RICHARD ADAMS INTERVIEWS VERNON HANDLEY

© 2004 Sir Arnold Bax Website , www.arnoldbax.net


Editor’s Note: This interview is the product of two meetings with Vernon Handley at his home in Abergavenny, Wales .  The first interview took place in November 2001 and that was followed up by a second interview that took place just last year while Handley was in the middle of recording his monumental Bax symphony cycle for Chandos. My intent in interviewing the great Maestro was to encourage him to recollect on his remarkable life and career as well as discuss several great musical figures with whom he is so closely associated.  I would like to thank Rob Barnett for his assistance in transcribing this interview as well as  Tony Williams, Peter Ainsworth, Chris Webber, Graham Parlett and Nick Curry for their support and assistance in editing this interview.  Most of all, I’d like to thank Tod Handley and his family for being so generous with their time and for being such gracious hosts.


 At the beginning of our interview Tod pulled Lewis Foreman’s study of Bax off his shelf and read a favourite passage from it aloud.

VH: Ah yes, I love this. This is Vaughan Williams in a letter to the Radio Times. And he says: “I notice a curious error in your issue of December 16th in discussing a concert of compositions by Arnold Bax and various continental composers – Szymanowski, Schoenberg, Conrad Beck, Hindemith, Norbert van Halaman, Poulenc and Stravinsky. You state that Arnold Bax is clearly in place in this distinguished company. I take it that the sentence was meant to express that the other composers were not unworthy of a place beside Arnold Bax? Personally I do not consider that most of the names on that list are worthy to stand beside Bax but this, of course, is a matter of opinion.” Glorious!

RA: So subtly stated but so to the point. Tod, you’ve described yourself as a self-taught musician with a mother who was Irish and a father who was Welsh. Were you born in Wales ?

VH: No, in North London amongst the terrace houses of Enfield , which is a little borough north of London on the Essex side of the tracks. Adjunct to Enfield there was a very large factory area and my father was a paper maker at one of the factories there. So it was a very industrial district and a very concentrated one during the war. I remember quite a lot of bombing. I was raised in a musical family. My father had sung tenor in the Llandaff Cathedral Choir and my mother taught piano, but she couldn’t teach me because she said I was unteachable and she was quite right … absolutely right. I used to stand behind her when she was playing and I’d say, “no, B flat, Mum”, and she’d say: “get out of the room” and I’d say: “OK I will go out of the room but it’s still going to be B flat”. So I taught myself and I’m not worried about that. Beecham taught himself. Boult turned to music in the University merely to get some qualification, but he was up to then self-taught. His parents were well off so he was able to have individual tutors for instruments. Elgar was also self-taught so you see I’m in very good company with these fellows. I can remember it now as if it were yesterday because it was such good fun to teach myself – finding an obstacle and actually solving it. Reading scores was such a joy to do, as was counterpoint and the transposing of instruments.

RA: Did you have a mentor to instruct you?

VH: I was very lucky in having a marvellous music master at the school that I went to in Enfield who spotted my abilities even though I wasn’t an official musician. I mean in those days playing piano was synonymous with being a musician. I couldn’t play piano because I had had an injury to my hand when I was eight that resulted in cramps and for a while my fingers didn’t grow. I was very bitter about this because it meant I couldn’t be a musician – I couldn’t play the piano. I didn’t realize then what a Godsend it was because it meant that everything I read I had to hear. I couldn’t just take it to the piano and strum it. So I taught myself, but this music master was good and he would feed me books that I could go away with and read and eventually, I guess I would have been 16, he allowed me to conduct the school choir. I think the moment I stood up there to do it, I just knew that was what I needed to do for the rest of my life. I wasn’t very good at it then, but I’ve improved. At that time, my view of conductors was what so many people’s view of conductors is, namely: ‘what on earth is that man doing up there?’ I talked to my music master about this and he said he thought it was time that I saw Boult, so he got a rehearsal pass for me to the BBC Symphony Studio in Maida Vale and I went along there, crept in, sat down and there in front of me was this vast orchestra, and in front of them sitting on a stool was this old man, or at least he seemed old to me then, with an immensely long stick, and as I watched and listened … suddenly it was like remembering how to conduct rather than discovering it, by which I mean that it was obvious to me that if he wanted a little more weight from the cellos, he didn’t thrust a hand out at the cellos with mock vibrato, he would just incline his head towards them for six inches and out came more sound. Every single thing he did, and he didn’t do much – but everything he did immediately produced a result. And I thought, oh, that’s how to do it and so I turned myself into a carbon copy of Boult. Many years later when I met him, I said to him that people had told me off for being a carbon copy of him and he said: “I wouldn’t worry about it. Of course it was easier for me with Nikisch because he was over there, but the trouble for you is that I’m over here and so everybody can see who you are copying, but with Nikisch nobody saw him.”

RA: Did you see Boult often then?

VH: Oh yes, I did. Of course I didn’t meet him until 1953 or 1954. Before that I did my University training and I got to go into the Forces – in those days we were press-ganged into National Service. I had two years of that and then I went up to Oxford at Balliol and did my work there. When I was coming down from Balliol, I wrote to Boult and he replied with a cyclostyled letter that he sent to all the young conductors who wrote to him – saying don’t do it, there aren’t enough chances, you’ll be ruined by it. Then in 1958 I saw he was doing a Holst concert at the Festival Hall, and I rang his secretary and said please could I come to the rehearsals because I love Holst so much, and she said Sir Adrian was very interested that I was interested in Holst, and was I the Handley who had been in touch with them from Oxford? I said yes and she said: “so Sir Adrian didn’t put you off?” And I said that I hadn’t taken any notice of his letter at all. She said he’d like me to come to the rehearsals and also he’d like to meet me. So I went along. It was a wonderful concert. A few days later I went to see him at his Welbeck Street office, and I was put through the worst two hours of counterpoint and harmony that I’ve ever faced – and when we finished, he got a score, opened it, put it towards me, gave me a stick and asked how I would deal with that and he put his finger down on the page. I looked down and thought, there is a God after all. I said I would set up and conduct the accompanying figures and let the viola and cor anglais make their own phrases until we can get what’s right, and he said just show me. And I did … one, two, three and before I hit the third beat, his hand was out and he grasped my hand, and he said, do that again, and I thought, oh my God, what have I done? So I did it again, one, two, three and I got as far as four and he took the stick out of my hand and he turned to his secretary and he said, “We’ll help this one, Mrs Beckett.” I was very lucky. Then he asked where had I learned to use a stick like that and I told him from watching him. He said, “hmmm.” Then I said I was very lucky with the example he gave me. And he said: “oh really, why?” And I said every student of conducting should know his Bax symphonies. He had put Bax Three in front of me … what a bit of luck!

RA: How did your first conducting assignments come about?

VH: Having conducted at Oxford and having experienced the wonderful scholastic atmosphere of Balliol, where it didn’t matter so much what you were working at so long as you were doing something, I had the advantage of that and my two years in the Forces to learn repertoire – so I knew my Ring Cycle and so on. I did conduct a lot in the University, so when I came down I threw myself at whatever conducting was about: Women’s Institute Carol Concerts kept me going for a year, and then I became a church choirmaster. I just did anything I could. I would form a small amateur choir, form an orchestra and it went on and on and eventually a few people, including Sir Adrian, felt that I had done enough apprenticeship and I got a date with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which went absolutely superbly with the orchestra as well as the audience standing up at the end. Boult came down to Bournemouth for it and he said it was the most auspicious arrival since Beecham … and I thought, how marvellous and sure enough, there were orchestra players coming round to the dressing room saying wonderful debut young man, tremendous, really terrific … and I got my return date as a result of it – thirteen and a half years later!

RA: They were a little slow coming around.

VH: The reviews of that concert were thrown out to the other orchestras and then Birmingham gave me a date and so on and so on.

RA: What year was that?

VH: Around 1960.

RA: You’d begun your studies with Boult by that time?

VH: Well, he wouldn’t take a fee you see. Mind you I didn’t have any money! What he said was that we would exchange information. He told me to come to his rehearsals and concerts and then we’d meet every few weeks and go through what I’d learned. So for three years I did go to an awful lot of his rehearsals and concerts and recording sessions and he would, if he wasn’t rushing anywhere afterwards, take me out to a restaurant and we’d chat and they were really good lessons. The LPO were rehearsing one day at the Carlton Rooms up towards Kilburn, and as usual with Sir Adrian he got through with rehearsal very quickly and he said his car wouldn’t be coming for a little while, so we went across to Paddington Recreation Ground where he consumed ice cream after ice cream after ice cream! He loved ice cream. He must have had four ices I think, but during that time, during the ice creams, there would be a lot of wisdom. I was very lucky, very lucky indeed. Then eventually I was able to do a lot of assistant work for him, even though he didn’t agree with assistant conductorships, but he worked with me because I knew what he did. We did a huge television Gerontius at Canterbury Cathedral, and he would sit in the chair beside the rostrum while I was conducting, and I would turn to him and say, “like this Sir Adrian?” And we talked in this jargon about stick technique and he would say, “no don’t do that … do this or do that”, and the orchestral players were marvellous about it. They were in stitches of laughter with me doing this imitation of Boult, but it was good. I’m very indebted actually to the LPO of that day, because they didn’t treat me as a carbon copy of Boult. They knew that temperamentally I was nothing like him at all. He was an Edwardian gentleman with a dreadful temper, and I’m 100 % Celt without one, but we got on with the business of technique. There was, though, one hard thing to accept about Sir Adrian. He was a great conductor no doubt at all, but I’m not sure that he was a great man. You see, he disapproved of Bax and Delius because they were promiscuous and roustabouts and so on. He would say they were awful people, or: “Beautiful music but lacking in thought”. This meant that if offered a choice, he would choose someone else rather than Bax or particularly Delius. That he didn’t want to conduct their works because of what they were as people seemed false to me, because Beethoven and Schubert were rather naughty as well, but they were alright with him. The classics could have syphilis and be approved, but Delius could have it and not be approved. I couldn’t understand that double standard.

RA: Your first London concert included Bax’s Third Symphony.

VH: That’s right. It was a nice little concert given to me by Morley College and I’m very grateful to them. It was the Morley College Symphony Orchestra, which was full of very good amateurs and very good young professionals. Yes it was a programme which, when I look back on it, turns out to have been an act of monumental stupidity: Anthony Milner’s April Prologue, world premiere; Hammersmith, Prelude and Scherzo by Holst; Delius’s Dance Rhapsody No. 1 and Bax’s Symphony No. 3. Now there’s a programme for you! I must have been out of my mind, but the London papers gave me tremendous reviews.

RA: That would have been a very rare performance of that symphony for that time.

VH: Very rare in those days. One of the critics, I forget who it was, wrote: “perhaps we should be grateful to Vernon Handley for allowing us the opportunity to hear the last performance of Bax’s Third Symphony.” Well, I proved him wrong!

RA: You programmed a lot of Bax with the Guildford Philharmonic.

VH: Yes I did. When I got the Guildford job, I determined that twenty-five percent of the music that we played in Guildford should be British. This is just one man’s effort to put the balance right. To a large extent I have failed in that effort. One would like to have done so much more. I have got to the point, at least, that I do on average a British work in every programme. So if I do a Mozart Requiem, in the next programme I have got to do three British works to make up for it. This is the only way really to get people to enjoy, understand and be stimulated by the music of their own country  - just to have it available there.

 

 

Vernon Handley in the early 1960's

RA: Was Guildford made up of students as well as professionals?

VH: The Guildford Orchestra was a semi-professional orchestra when I arrived in 1962. It was a professional orchestra with amateur stiffening you could almost say rather than the other way around. But when I had been there a couple of years it was quite clear that it was going to improve. We did have a following and therefore I asked the amateurs to take the union card and turn the whole orchestra professional, and it was such a success. The Guildford Council said yes they’d do it so it became a fully professional orchestra. We did have a scheme. It was called the Playing Scholars Scheme and with it we established two chairs, one in the firsts and one in the seconds, that were for people from the music colleges who wanted to make playing their career. In actual fact, it worked very well, and a number of players who came onto that scheme have since gone on to lead some of the national orchestras and sit up at the front desks. The orchestra really threw themselves into the pieces of Bax that I put down for programming. In actual fact they are beautiful works to play, and you’ve only got to let an orchestra play one of the works and then the next year another and it’s amazing how much they have remembered of the language of the first. This works with all music and with all groups. But the Guildford Orchestra responded so well to all my programmes. I remember my 100th concert. They told me to do whatever I wanted, so I said fine and we did the Symphonic Variations of Parry, Symphonic Variations of Bax for piano and orchestra and Morning Heroes by Bliss. When I think of that programme! It was done on a 3-hour rehearsal in the morning, a 3-hour rehearsal in the afternoon and the show in the evening. I used to do this. It was the only way of getting enough money, or rather little enough money, to do concerts of that sort so you didn’t have to pay for travel from London . We did it all in one day. We did Mass of Life like that with orchestra and soloists in the morning, and orchestra and chorus in the afternoon with soloists marking their parts, and concert in the evening. I used to go back into my dressing room and slide along the wall to the floor. I was so exhausted, but not only did the orchestra throw themselves into it but we had a wonderful audience. I stepped into the conducting position my first season there because the previous incumbent had died in the summer, and so that season was planned by that man, and that season we had an audience attendance average of 47 per cent. The next year it was 76 per cent and the year after that it was 85 per cent. It very rarely, over the next 21 years, fell below 70 per cent.

RA: I believe you met Vaughan Williams on a couple of occasions.

VH: I met Vaughan Williams once or twice and I had a little correspondence with him as well. He was an immense personality. I met him when he was very old at rehearsals at the Festival Hall … usually Boult’s. He would come along, not necessarily when it was his work, but if it was a new work or one that he didn’t know. He would come along and listen. He was very broad-minded to his dying day and even then he was a bent-over man with a huge leonine head and a woollen scarf wound round his neck three times and touching the ground on both sides. He also favoured an old-fashioned metal speaking trumpet and he would sit there with this great trumpet in his ear. I corresponded with him because I was fascinated by the economy of means in Holst and, as you know, he was a great friend of Holst. And I said that I thought one of the most remarkable things about Holst was that his finest composing techniques were lavished on his small works, for example, the Suite in E Flat for military band, where all the movements are made out of exactly the same notes. And he wrote back that the Suite was not his favourite Holst but Hammersmith was, where the same sort of pattern occurs. One thing I do remember about the Festival Hall rehearsals. He was at one where they were doing his Sixth Symphony. Boult read through the first movement and, of course, as you know all the movements are joined, and he went right along to the end of the second movement and then asked Vaughan Williams, “Had any ideas Ralph?” And Vaughan Williams said, “The second movement …” The LPO were craning their heads forward expecting some gem of wisdom. And he said, “The second movement … they haven’t got the rhythm right. When they are playing … if they can just think to themselves – and this very slowly – two-hot-sau-sa-ges and two-hot-sau-sa-ges.”

RA: It should be said that your grounding in music was in the German classics.

VH: Yes. Absolutely, yes. And if you had seen me at my son’s age – at 13 or so – I would have been standing at a table somewhere with a Wagner score open in front of me conducting the whole thing in silence. So yes I did all that before I came to British music. But when I came to British music it was a thunderclap in my life. One of the early works that I appreciated, to put it that way, was The Garden of Fand. I remember having read it in a rather large study score that they produced in those days. And I read it and I was almost unable to breathe properly for three days, because I was so taken away especially by that glorious tune in the middle, and Bax is one of those people who can write a tune whenever he likes.

RA: You’ve recently said that no other composer holds your attention or brings you as much pleasure as Arnold Bax, and you are also on record as saying that your favourite symphony is Bax’s Sixth. Is it fair to say that Bax is your favourite composer?

VH: Not quite, Richard. I don’t have a favourite composer. But I find that the things that I have most enjoyed with Bax are always renewed with added intensity whenever I go back to his music. His music for me, more than any other music, is a music that goes on growing as I know it and it has always impressed me. I have faith enough in the worth of his works to believe that Bax will have his day, because he is so individual, so original, his grasp of moods and his projection of moods are so unlike those of any other composer. One of the things that has always worried me is that if you put a mature piece of Bax in front of an orchestra, bless their hearts, they try to play it like something else, so we get performances that are a cross between Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss, which is ridiculous because Bax embraces moods and philosophies that neither of those composers got near to. No one else addresses those moods of, how can I put it, sensitivity with flashes of lurid paganism. How he manages such a range I don’t know, but always when I come back to his music I find that it has grown in the meantime.

RA:  For me Bax’s music is expressive of melancholy.

VH: It’s not quite melancholy. It’s this extraordinary Celtic thing: their artists are either absolutely brilliant and at the top of the world, or else they’ve got the death wish and there’s nothing in between. It is this extraordinary mixture of nostalgia, which is happy, and melancholy, which isn’t. I don’t know of a word that gets it right but it’s a good one to go looking for. 

 

Recording Bax with the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester

RA: Bax is frequently described as an ‘uneven’ composer. Christopher Whelen once said that most of Bax’s music could be discarded except for the better-known tone poems and symphonies. And Raymond Leppard told me he thinks there are certain works by Bax that really shouldn’t be promoted. What do you think about that?

VH: I wonder what pieces he had in mind?

RA: ‘Mediterranean’ and some things like that.

VH: Oh, I see. I think I’d take issue with these people because if Elgar writes a little piece like, you know, Salut d’Amour, it’s taken to be the light, trivial, charming little output of a person who wrote great symphonies. Why not say this of Bax as well? There’s a most beautiful piece, Dance in the Sunlight. These little things are not supposed to be vast symphonic, Sibelian-like undertakings – just a lovely little piece. And I think that even things like Picaresque Comedy Overture have such a lovely brightness about them. But, of course, as with Elgar’s small pieces or Greensleeves of Vaughan Williams, you’ve got to be able to do them. And Mediterranean does suffer from bad performances. It requires a tremendous touch, that piece. And it can so easily be stuck to the floor. No, it’s got a lilt. It’s got to bounce.

RA and VH turn to the structural strength of Bax’s symphonies.

RA: Your old recording on Revolution of the Fourth Symphony is truly a remarkable interpretation. You keep that symphony on a very tight rein, which is good because it seems to me the one symphony where the term ‘rhapsodic’ actually does apply.

VH: That recording’s in awful sound, but I think you’ve touched on something that is very difficult to explain when one is conducting. It does need to be held. It’s also one of the most unified of his works from the point of view of metamorphosis of this or that theme. The fanfare in the first movement is transformed in the finale, and it’s the kind of thing that the critics hold that Bax is not capable of: “Beautiful music, yes, oh yes, lovely tunes, and interesting harmony.” But of course they say he’s a meanderer and he’s not, he’s a very tight composer.

RA: Bax’s chamber music is not often accused of being rhapsodic and whether that’s the scale …

VH: It’s different with chamber music. With a string quartet you can’t clutter up the page because you only have four players, so absolutely everything has got to be of a scale that is possible to interpret with four voices. But give the composer 23 voices and my word, he’ll use them and then it gets a little bit murky – but it’s only murky superficially. That is to say you hear it a few times and you can see the structure. I mean, for example, the glorious structural achievements of the Sixth Symphony. The material is never stepped outside of, which is to say there is a metamorphosis from beginning to end. It discovers a world in the last movement, which was hinted at in the first movement, but it only realizes its strength in the last movement, and for that world I cannot find a parallel mood in the whole of musical literature with the possible exception of Honegger’s Fifth Symphony. Here is an uncompromising straight view of life. And yet, by the last movement, that view of life is not one of resignation. It moves through to a kind of hierarchical beauty. For anybody to achieve that while using the same material in the last movement that he has used already – that is to say that he has composed – is remarkable.

VH:  indicates that the composer Robert Simpson did not appreciate the formal qualities of Bax’s symphonies.

VH: Bax is a formal giant and yet somebody as perspicacious as Bob Simpson didn’t necessarily see that. Of course, Bob Simpson’s scores are never as chromatically demanding as Bax’s scores. And I often wonder if it’s this business of people’s ears accepting one accent where they can’t hear another. Do you know sometimes you will go into a company where there are mixed accents, and someone says something to you and he has come from Ayrshire. You will understand just about what he says. And then someone who comes from Midlothian will speak, and you will think he is speaking Hungarian. It’s just an accent – just a dialect. People as profoundly sensitive as Bob Simpson do not hear the structure in Bax, because they are hearing the stuff on top of it. The thing that worries me about Bax is that even in a work as clearly formal as The Garden of Fand, a work of real genius, people don’t spot it. It is a piece of classical form that is absolutely rigorous and it is not appreciated. You see Boult used to say to me: “Oh, Tintagel … marvellous form in Tintagel.” And I would say yes, of course. “Well, it’s not always so with Bax”, Boult would add, and I’d add: “to me it is!” And when he was recording Fand with the LPO, I asked how did  Fand go because I hadn’t been able to get to the session, and he said: “Well enough, I think. I brought Dona Nobis Pacem in to read while they were doing the tapes. Bax, you see…Bax drank…he drank…he drank.”

RA: One of the purposes of having a website devoted to Bax is to help counter some of the negative commentary that Bax has received over the years with comments from working musicians who know the music better than anyone else because they have studied and played it. I have been struck by how positive most musicians are who have lived with Bax’s music, and how quick most of them are to refute the old assumptions about Bax’s music being rhapsodic and loosely structured. 

VH: You are absolutely right. And funnily enough I had an example of the very thing you stated there. I was conducting one of the student orchestras in the Royal Academy. It was a celebration of Lionel Tertis, and we did the Elgar Cello Concerto arranged for viola with Paul Silverthorne, and then we had Benjamin Dale’s Second Romance played by Martin Outram. Now Martin Outram is from the Maggini Quartet and he was saying exactly that. The Maggini have recorded the Bax quartets. He said initially they all thought they ought to do the Bax. Then they played them and they thought: “this is pretty good”, but as they started to really go at it, they realized just how structurally brilliant those works are. Isn’t it nice that this does happen; that is to say that there is something more to be gained the more you hear it. With so much music you get what you heard the first time. You may have it intensified to the point where you don’t want to hear it any more. It becomes cloying and clogs up your veins. But with Bax there is this lovely journey that you take, and it gets more and more profound the longer you stay on the journey.

RA: I have heard many of your broadcasts of the Bax Symphonies in the 1970s. What struck me most about those performances is the tremendous momentum and forward drive and power. I am wondering if your interpretations of the symphonies have changed much in the last thirty years?

VH: The answer is that a certain amount of the development you undergo as a conductor comes from repetition of a work. You get to know it better and better, of course. But the most important thing is that as you know it better you find it easier to give what you know to the orchestra. Then of course you have this wonderful ellipse in that the orchestra, having got the bit between their teeth, if I may mix my metaphors, starts to play it better and better; especially as they find it has its own idiom. So there may have been changes, but my basic approach has not changed in regard to these symphonies. I found out more about the Fourth Symphony after my recent recording. I still think it is the weakest of the symphonies, but it is so much better than I had thought, so much better. Yes, changes take place, but they are usually only important if you are changing something very basic, like a tempo for instance. Choosing the right tempo for Bax is a very difficult thing because he didn’t put metronome marks in the scores, so everybody’s idea of moderato is different, but I find that standing the work on its rhythmic base is the thing that for me is changing, and for the better. One doesn’t want too much tradition and blandness about safe tempi. In fact, that is a horrible way to live. But my view about the Third Symphony has changed very very little. The First and Second Symphonies have changed very little. The Fifth is changing an awful lot. I had not appreciated the last movement of Bax No. 5 until quite recently, during the last ten years or so. And I don’t think I have ever given as good a performance as I can of that symphony. Because of that, my approach to that one has changed. The Seventh Symphony is fine. That’s an easier one emotionally than some of the others because the emotions and moods of No. 7 are more accessible than the moods of No. 2 or No. 6. Those two are strangely powerful but in some ways remote. The moods of No. 7 are reasonably clear and to me that symphony is about a man saying ‘goodbye’, or at least goodbye to the symphonies.

RA: Would you put Bax’s achievement as a symphonist on a par with Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Walton – the other great British symphonists?

VH: It’s difficult … mmm … Well you are mentioning people who have already, in the eyes of the critics, made some definite contribution, and for anybody like me to come along and say that Bax is their equal symphonically would be dismissed straightaway. Many people who would give a great deal of credit to those composers would give no credit at all to Bax. My feeling is that while I get more and more out of VW as I live to be older – and Elgar – neither of them in my mind are in any way either procedurally or by inspiration better than Bax. For instance, VW has a personal style that is easy enough to put your finger on. Bax has a very individual style and so does Elgar, but take some chunks out of an Elgar work and you will find similar chunks elsewhere in his work. VW has written nine very different symphonies, yet they all draw the attention of the ear to that man’s accent. With Bax, each of his symphonies is a world of its own and not one is like another. They’re seven different symphonies – don’t you think? – seven different moods. I hope that critics will come along who will understand this because certainly, for me, Bax is as important a symphonist as those people because he does things with symphonic form that they don’t. I mean his preferred choice of three movements and so on. He did that for a reason. I think formally the Sixth … well the Second, the Third and the Sixth, are formally as good as anything in the 20th century, and to me expressively as well.

Tod makes the case for a possible further symphony by Bax.

VH: Do you know, I’ve had an idea about the Northern Ballads. They are actually linked. There’s certain material and certain treatments that are common to all three, although they’re never reckoned to be connected. But he did eventually call them all ‘Northern Ballads’. I was very lucky because I had a very sympathetic producer at the BBC who let me do all three of them together with the BBC Concert Orchestra, who read superbly and played most idiomatically. And when you put the three together, it’s like a half-hour symphony. I’d say it just about works. I think they are masterly. I know people feel the first one is rather trite – you know those great fanfares, but I find that it has got a beautiful energy about it, and it is ideal as a modern sort of truncated first movement for a symphony. And then there’s the great, the really great length of No. 2 that manages to sustain a really good second movement. And then the Third has all the necessary ingredients of a Bax finale.

RA: Chandos announced in 2002 that you had been asked to record the Bax symphonies for them with the BBC Philharmonic. I know that this has been a lifelong dream of yours. I am wondering, now that the recording project is taking place for a major label in the best possible recorded sound, how does that feel … to be finally recording all the Bax symphonies?

VH: This project is far and away the most exciting of all my recording projects – easily. When you have been waiting so long for it to happen, you can almost feel too much pressure to get it right. It is a pressure that one wishes on oneself and I’m enjoying the series immensely. One of the nicest things has been to watch the orchestra learn Bax’s language. 

RA: You bring a lifetime’s experience to this music and that is something that no other conductor who has recorded Bax in recent years can say. That experience, I assume, is helping you a great deal – along with your phenomenal technique.

VH: I sit in the armchair and I wonder: “how am I going to get that right?”, or: “how am I going to balance that?”, and then I transfer all that reflection into my stick technique. I find that my stick technique is helping me out no end. I am very anxious about the picture that people receive now of these symphonies. I must be very careful that that picture is not in any way distorted because I know that the music does speak for itself. I find imbalance and exaggeration a nuisance. I must be careful not to over-emphasize things or to put so much meaning into this or that chord. That mustn’t happen. There are a number of places in the Bax symphonies where one could over-indulge – as has happened in the past. The music has got to be performed in such a way that there is nothing at all between the audience and the music. Most conductors get in the way. So my feeling about the whole set is that it is a mighty labour actually.

RA: Not unlike what you experienced with the Simpson symphonies or any other major symphony cycle you’ve taken on?

VH: Yes, but it is much harder to give a balanced view of a Bax symphony than it is to give, say, a good view of a Mahler symphony. To me Mahler is not the huge composer that most people would have us believe. Mind you though, he had to wait for some time before he was recognized. But I find Bax an altogether more imaginative composer than Mahler, and I know that if you wade into a Mahler symphony, it will give you a certain amount of help, but intellectually there is not a great mind at work there. With Bax one knows that one is in the presence of a great mind, and it is the conductor’s job to represent that great mind.

RA: What do you make of previous attempts to record Bax’s symphonies?

VH: I think attempts to record Bax have been a bit hard on the performers because, once again, they were people who had never conducted much Bax before or who hadn’t conducted the symphonies. In all my discussions with you today we have come back constantly to this business of needing to live with the music, even more with Bax than other composers whose orchestration, if nothing else, is more sparse than his. It’s this business of getting to know it, but I think there have been some very good efforts. I think that Jack Thomson’s Fifth is excellent, though I might disagree with him about a certain pulse near the end of the symphony, but generally speaking he does something really special for us followers of Bax in the first two movements of that symphony. And Norman Del Mar’s Sixth – though once again I disagree with the initial tempo in the older set. That first tempo is … well … it was typical Norman. He was a tremendous personality and an eccentric. With him the moderato opening suddenly sounds more like allegretto, but notwithstanding that’s a beautiful, beautiful performance! I think that, with regard to No. 3, one would have to look back to the original Barbirolli, which was just outstanding in every way. I don’t think that justice has yet been done to the First, Second or Seventh Symphonies. Nor, indeed, to No. 4 either, but it shouldn’t be difficult. It shouldn’t! I did hear a wonderful broadcast performance once of No. 4 by Maurice Handford that was really outstanding. I heard it sometime after my own record came out, and I remember thinking as I listened, ah hah, he’s got that there. So these things remain in one’s mind. Looking back on No. 3, while Barbirolli is my favourite, I quite like my own No. 3. I had the wonderful chance of doing it with the Liverpool Orchestra a couple of years ago in the same programme with the Moeran Cello Concerto with Raphael Wallfisch, who did it superbly.

RA: What a dream concert.

VH: And the Liverpool Orchestra – by the time we got to the end of those four performances, they were proving what we have been talking about. They’d got to know it and were inside it, and they gave a most beautiful performance in the worst acoustic of the week. It just happened at the place where we did our last concert – I forget where it was, I think it was Derby … I’m not sure. But it was really a dead acoustic and yet the Bax glowed because they knew what they were doing.

 

 

 

Recording Bax with the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester

RA and VH turn to performances and recordings of music by other composers.

RA: The final installment of Bernard Haitink’s cycle of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies was issued a few years ago by EMI, and Haitink is the first non Anglo-American conductor to do all the Vaughan Williams symphonies. Do you think it is important for non-British or non-American conductors to take up this music?

VH: Absolutely. I am delighted that Bernard Haitink did a series. He is a sounding board for music as a conductor, and he is so sincere in everything he does that even if one disagrees with him on some musical point, one would nevertheless know that it was put across with complete integrity. I think that some of those performances in his Vaughan Williams cycle are really towering. Practically anything Bernard does will have a great deal to recommend it because he is such an honest conductor, and that’s the kind of conductor one needs for Vaughan Williams who was himself sincere and straight to the point – a very downright composer. I’m delighted with that set of his!

RA: The original 1913 version of Vaughan Williams’s ‘London Symphony’ was recorded a few years ago on Chandos, and won the Gramophone ‘Record of the Year’ award. What are your thoughts on recording original versions of works that a composer may not have approved for performance, and what do you think of that 1913 version?

VH: Well, I think Vaughan Williams knew best. The last movement, which is where the main problem is, is perfect formally and encapsulates the feelings about the whole work. It draws all the strings together doesn’t it? For it to go on any longer … I think Vaughan Williams knew that formally it would be weak if it did. And I can’t get away from the fact that hearing the elongation dissatisfies me. I’ll just have to work at it much harder! But I still think that whenever Vaughan Williams and Holst got out the rubber or the blue pencil they almost always improved their works. And once again that’s a thing that Boult used to say to me: “You see, Bax should have had a dose of Royal College of Music, where they used the Indian rubber, whereas at the Academy they begged for another pencil.” I don’t agree with him, but I do certainly respect Holst and Vaughan Williams for their constant revising.

RA: Along the same lines, you have performed Anthony Payne’s realisation of the Elgar Third. Do you think he is successful in capturing the spirit of Elgar in that symphony?

VH: I think he does. I don’t think I know anyone who could have done what Tony Payne has done. He has done something quite remarkable. I’ll make my only reservation first. Absolutely all of it sounds like Elgar but what he doesn’t do, which Elgar invariably does, is surprise me. I don’t get surprised anywhere. But then he has done something that I would never have believed any composer could do, and that is with his casting of the last movement and especially the end of the last movement. He has actually developed a mood that Elgar had lighted on but actually not developed, namely in ‘The Wagon Passes’. Do you know that little movement from The Nursery Suite? That has a certain … not melancholy, but wistful and nostalgic look back and forward. But Elgar was going that way with some of his moods and Tony Payne has actually done it. It’s remarkable because you know you are in a feeling that is not common to Elgar, yet you know that that feeling is Elgarian. It’s a subtle point and I haven’t the words really to articulate it, but he has done that and it is a remarkable creative achievement. But that’s talking only about that movement. The rest is wonderful.

RA and VH discuss Tod’s recordings of Robert Simpson’s symphonies.

VH: You know, I only knew three of the Simpson symphonies well before I started to record them. I really had no idea what a colossal intellectual effort it would be to do the entire cycle until after I had recorded them all.

RA: The Tenth Symphony was written for you?

VH: Yes, the Tenth was dedicated to me. I think it was because of what I did for the Ninth Symphony. I did the world première of Nine – and the first recording, of course, which was a Gramophone ‘Record of the Year’. And it is a remarkable, remarkable piece! But I think Bob was so fascinated by seeing me down there in Bournemouth … the orchestra reading it from scratch, of course, and how far we got into it before we were forced to stop. Bob always had his head in the score, and anything he said when you had done a take or done a bit of rehearsal, anything that he said was absolutely right. Bang on! And, of course, he had a lovely sense of humour that always lightens sessions, which can be a bit tense. The interesting thing about him in the recording sessions – he was always asking for more expressive playing. He would say: “There is a lot of me in that passage. There’s a lot of me in there. That doesn’t sound as if I am very interesting.” Then he would put his finger on a number of points, and you would immediately realize where one was lacking and would go out and get a cleaner take for him. He knew of my love for Bax , but he, as we have seen, was no great admirer of Bax. He was very kind about him once or twice in his little book about the Proms. He includes Bax amongst those people who ought to have been better represented, which is Bob Simpson showing us his integrity. Quite right too! But I said to him one day – this was before the Tenth Symphony – I said to him: “Well, if you’re doing this 10th …” and he said, “You’re going to have it Tod. It’s going to be yours.” And I said: “Thank you very much. Could I ask then for a sort of signature?” He said, “What do you want?” I said: “Well, I would like to have a passage where the cellos and the horns are together in middle register, mezzo forte, and double basses are the only accompaniment.” He said, “Oh God … That sounds like a bit of your Bax!”