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Bax: Chandos Reissues

By Roger Hecht


Appears by the kind permission of

American Record Guide

The Issue (e.g. March/April 2004)

Toll Free Phone: 888-658-1907




Volume 1 -- Violin Concerto; Cello Concerto; Morning Song

Lydia Mordkovitch, v; Raphael Wallfisch, vc; Margaret Fingerhut, p; London

Philharmonic/ Bryden Thomson--Chandos 10154--77 minutes

Chandos 10154--77 minutes


Volume 3 -- November Woods; Happy Forest ; Garden of Fand ; Summer Music;


Ulster Orchestra/ Bryden Thomson

Chandos 10156--73 minutes


Volume 4 -- The Tale the Pine Trees Knew; Into the Twilight; In the Faery

Hills; Roscatha; Legend; On the Sea Shore

London Philharmonic , Ulster Orchestra/ Bryden Thomson, Vernon Handley

Chandos 10157--80 minutes


Volume 5 -- Festival Overture; Christmas Eve; Dance of Wild Irravel;

Nympholept; Paean; Overture to a Picaresque Comedy; Cortege

London Philharmonic/ Bryden Thomson

Chandos 10158--77 minutes


Volume 6 -- Russian Suite; 4 Songs; Golden Eagle; Saga Fragment; Romantic


Martyn Hill, t; Margaret Fingerhut, p; London

Philharmonic/ Bryden Thomson

Chandos 10159--78 minutes



















Chandos issued these pieces over the last decade or so. Many accompanied

Bryden Thomson's set of Arnold Bax's symphonies; some appeared on collections

of Bax tone poems. A few have not been recorded elsewhere to my knowledge

(noted with an asterisk below). This compilation should appeal to collectors

who passed over Thomson's symphony recordings for those on Lyrita, Naxos (with

David Lloyd-Jones), or the new Chandos set with Vernon Handley. Because

Thomson's slower tempos and luxuriant manner suit the tone poems much better

than the structured symphonies, they are generally superior to the leaner,

more structured Lloyd-Jones, for whom the opposite is true. Add the

superiority of the London Philharmonic and the Ulster Orchestra to

Lloyd-Jones's Scottish National Orchestra, and you have a most attractive



VOLUME 1. Bax wrote the Violin Concerto* (1938) for Jascha Heifetz, who

apparently found it lacking in virtuosity. All to the good, I say. It is an

upbeat work that is lighter in scoring than most Bax. It consists of a

flowing, good-natured I, a yearning, sometimes Elgarian Adagio, and a Rondo

full of folk dance and haunting waltzes. The serious Cello Concerto* (1934),

with solo writing more vocal than instrumental, is scored for chamber

orchestra. It includes a lovely Nocturne and a wistful seascape that

anticipates the cello concertos of Gerald Finzi and Erich Korngold. Morning

Song* for piano and orchestra is a pleasant portrait of Maytime in Sussex

(1947). Lydia Mordkovitch's violin exhibits the right fullness and lyricism,

Wallfisch's cello is intense and brooding, Fingerhut is a fine successor to

Harriet Cohen in Bax's piano music, and Thomson manages high spirits better

than in the symphonies.


VOLUME 3 is the least desirable. Thomson's lightweight, rather limp Tintagel

does not reproduce noble cliffs and churning waves as well as the magisterial

Boult (Lyrita), the romantic Barbirolli (EMI), the sweeping Lloyd-Jones, or

even the inconsistent Falletta. Thomson is superior only to Bostock. Thomson

and Lloyd-Jones both pale next to Boult and Barbirolli in Garden of Fand , a

more impressionist portrait of the sea. November Woods (1917), inspired by a

beech woodland, is a stormy, romantic work, with shifting pastels and touches

of Wagner. Thomson's light, feathery reading is on a par with the direct,

intimate Lloyd-Jones, but neither measures up to the sumptuous Boult (Lyrita).


Thomson is decent but could be more languid in the Delian-with-a-bite Summer

Music. He's better in the chirpy Happy Forest , but Lloyd-Jones's adequate

readings of both are coupled to two of his strongest Bax symphony outings, the

Third and Sixth.


VOLUME 4. Bax's last tone poem, Legend* (1943), is a real discovery. In the

composer's words, it "evoke[s] ... elements in the tales of some northern

land" with its "strangeness and remoteness" and suggests "mountain landscapes,

wild weather, wind-swept castles, shadowy battles, and ... triumph in a

barbaric setting ..." The Sibelian Tale the Pine Trees Knew portrays "two

landscapes dominated by the pine-trees-- Norway and the West of Scotland".

These works are up Thomson's alley. Lloyd-Jones's lighter, more bracing Pine

Trees is coupled to the one Bax symphony where I prefer Thomson--the Fifth.


The other pieces focus on Ireland . Three make up a trilogy Bax drew from Eire ,

his aborted opera (possibly two operas) about the Irish heroine, Deirdre. Into

the Twilight (1908) is moody and lyrical, with the sway of American

spirituals. The chattier, sometimes pensive In the Faery Hills (1909) suggests

the "Hidden People in the innermost deeps and hollow hills of Ireland ".

Roscatha* (1910) is a stirring, not-too-militaristic "gathering of heroes and

nobles". The bleak shifting sands and ominous storms of On the Sea Shore are

also related to Eire but were orchestrated by Graham Parlett. I used to think

Lloyd-Jones brings Twilight and Faery Hills more to life than Thomson does,

but I now prefer Thomson's romance. Handley is responsible for the power and

strength of Sea Shore .


VOLUME 5. Bax took the title Nympholept ("caught by the nymphs", 1912) from a

Swinburne poem. The dedication, "Enter these enchanted woods You who dare", is

from Meredith. Bax described the piece as a "state of ecstasy coupled with a

desire for the unobtainable". Foreman called it a "perilous pagan enchantment

haunting the midsummer forest". Nympholept's luxuriance and seamless flow

suggest a longer and more dramatic Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The

magic ensuing from Thomson's sweep and lushness trumps the drier Lloyd-Jones.


Bax's Christmas Eve* is more about time and place than festivity. It is a

cross between Respighi and Liszt, with a dramatic organ passage and massive

ending. Thomson is good, but he could have employed more thrust and opulence.

Festival Overture* (1909) begins and ends like a carnival. The ceremonial

midsection shows touches of the Sibelius Third Symphony and the second

movement of Elgar's First. Dance of Wild Irravel* (1913) sounds enough like

the later La Valse that I wonder if Ravel heard it or saw the score--and what

about that play on "Ravel" in the title derived from Irish Gaelic? Paean*

(1920, orchestrated 1939) is an orgiastic pageant that would make a marvelous

conclusion to a festive concert. Cortege* is a colorful march whose quirkiness

reminds me of the one from Vaughan Williams's Wasps.


With its humorous description of a trickster, Overture to a Picaresque Comedy

(1930) resembles Till Eulenspiegel in idea, if not so much in music. The

skittery impish sections are not typical Bax; his presence emerges in the

quieter interludes and waltz sections. Lloyd-Jones plays it like a simple

scherzo. I prefer Thomson, whose slower tempos and greater weight dig out more

irony and take the music closer to Strauss.


VOLUME 6: Bax's Russian accent in Russian Suite would make Rimsky-Korsakoff

envious. He orchestrated two of these piano pieces for Sergei Diaghilev to use

as symphonic interludes. The Gopak's kicking rhythms and passages recall

Elgar's lighter moods. 'In a Vodka Shop's drunken exuberance and elegance is

fun. Graham Parlett orchestrated 'Nocturne' and its powerful depiction of a

Ukrainian night.


The first of the Four Songs, 'Glamor' (1921), is more tone poem than song,

with its slightly tipsy take on Bax's escapist philosophy, attractive

Orientalisms, and a haunting seascape of the Irish port of Galway . 'Slumber

Song' (1910, orch 1920) is lyrical and restful. Both use Bax's poetry.

'Eternity' is noble, sometimes brassy, and visionary (1925, orch 1934). 'A

Lyke-Wake' (1908, orch 1934) begins as a mysterious nocturne, then turns

wistful and searching. Martyn Hill's pleasant tenor blends well with the rich

orchestral accompaniment.


Golden Eagle* (1945) is incidental music for a play by Bax's brother,

Clifford. The early movements are in a quasi-Renaissance style, but by the

third prelude Bax's impressionism and a later touch of Waltonian nobility take

over. Romantic Overture* is a pleasing combination of dance and an afternoon

wandering around dedicatee Frederick Delius's house in France .


The haunting Saga Fragment* begins angrily, like the opening to Bernard

Herrmann's Psycho, then turns alternately sweet, stormy, and wistful (with

enough whole-tone scales to sound like Debussy). A more flexible conductor

with a lighter touch might make a better case for this orchestration of the

Piano Quartet. As it is, everything pounds too much. The other performances on

this volume match the best standards of the set.


In terms of desirability, I'd rank these in this order: 4, 5, and 2 (see

Tiedman's review, next issue of ARG); 1 and 6, and then 3. They have been remastered

in 24-bit sound, with little perceptible change except maybe a touch more

clarity. Lewis Foreman's fine notes return with only minor editing.


COPYRIGHT American Record Guide 2004