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ARNOLD BAX: WORKS FOR CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA

St Patrick’s Breastplate (14:49)

The Morning Watch (16:50)

To the Name above Every name (20:03)

Two Nocturnes for soprano and orchestra (8:18)

Christine Bunning (soprano), Huddersfield Choral Society, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Torchinsky (leader), Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Chandos CHAN 10164

[rec. Leeds Town Hall, 8 and 9 March 2003 (choral works); Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 17 April 2003 (Nocturnes)]


I have always had a soft spot for St Patrick’s Breastplate ever since I first heard it, many years ago, in a dim tape recording of a performance by American students that was broadcast on a local New York radio station in the 1960s. In 1978 the BBC Concert Orchestra under John Poole, with the BBC Singers, performed it on Radio 3, and it then remained unplayed for another twenty-five years until the present recording was made on 9 March 2003. The work is a setting of an anonymous eighth-century hymn translated from the Irish Gaelic, probably by Bax himself, though the score makes no mention of this. The vigorous opening, which is partly recapitulated towards the end, is in the composer’s most extrovert and martial vein. The music is quite restless for much of the time, and the moods change rapidly, from the tranquillity of the second verse to the fierce invocation of the natural elements (‘the flashing of lightning’,’ the hardness of rocks’, etc.). The quiet middle section, mainly for the chorus with sparse orchestral accompaniment, contains some of Bax’s most mellifluous choral writing, and the work ends in a mood of exultancy; as Colin Scott-Sutherland once observed, you feel that Bax was really putting his heart into the work. Like Holst’s Short Festival Te Deum or Vaughan Williams’s Benedicite, it would make a good opening piece for a choral-orchestral concert and should certainly be heard more often.

The next work on the CD is the two unpublished Nocturnes for soprano and orchestra of 1911. The first, Aufblick, is a setting of a poem by Richard Dehmel, while the second, Liebesode, has words by Otto Erich Hartleben; both are sung in the original German. Bax originally intended writing a third nocturne but abandoned the project before it was completed, and the two songs remained unperformed until his centenary year (1983), when the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra broadcast them under Edward Downes, with Rita Cullis as the soloist. These romantic songs, which the composer himself referred to as ‘Straussian’, are very well sung here by Christine Bunning. She copes admirably with their wide vocal leaps and interprets them sensitively, while Bax’s rich orchestral accompaniment is heard to good effect in this recording: the gong stroke at 2'57" in Aufblick is a spine-tingling moment.

Next we have The Morning Watch, which Bax wrote for the Three Choirs Festival of 1935. This setting of words by Henry Vaughan is another example of Bax in public, festal mood and is admirably suited to the occasion for which it was originally written. It opens with a brass chorale, which is followed by a vigorous, open-air kind of march labelled ‘Sunrise’. Bax’s orchestral writing is at its most opulent during this lengthy, purely instrumental introduction, and his harmonies are even lusher and more richly chromatic than usual in places (especially around 2'08"), though parts of it, in contrast, anticipate the leaner kind of music that he was writing in the 1940s; there are passages that would not have sounded out of place in Malta, G.C. It is not until nearly five minutes into the work that the chorus finally enters with the words ‘O joys! Infinite sweetness!’. The score contains some extremely heavily-scored passages, with chorus and orchestra going at it hammer and tongs, and there is far more dense, chordal writing in the piece than there is in St Patrick’s Breastplate; but there are also some very beautiful quieter moments, such as the soft string section around 12'25" with its spare harmonies. The climax of the score is for full orchestra without voices, and this closes on a resounding chord of A major. There then follows a beautiful, melismatic coda, where the initial entry of the chorus could perhaps have been closer to the pianissimo marked in the score; here it sounds more like mezzo-forte. The final page, as Lewis Foreman points out in his informative notes, anticipates the epilogue of the Seventh Symphony, and the work ends in complete tranquillity.

Finally we have To the Name above Every Name (with words by Richard Crashaw), the first of Bax’s works to be written for the Three Choirs Festival, premičred in Worcester Cathedral on 5 September 1923. It then remained unperformed for nearly half a century, until January 1973, when Vernon Handley conducted a rehearsal of it in Manchester with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. But it soon became clear that the chorus was inadequately prepared, and so Bax’s Third Symphony was broadcast in its stead. Finally, in 1983, Handley gave it its second full performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and three choirs, and he later played it with his Guildford Philharmonic forces. It is the grandest and longest of the three choral pieces on offer here and opens with a rousing orchestral introduction, culminating in a typical ‘liturgical’ theme hammered out with full force before the chorus enters. I especially like the quiet, pastoral passage beginning at 11'00", with its swaying muted strings, soft timpani, and high bassoon line; but then we are off again as the music begins to move swiftly on. As with the other works on this CD, the moods change quite rapidly (a Baxian characteristic) and the choral writing is very difficult in places, with complex, unaccompanied polyphonic passages that test the singers to their limits. Christine Bunning sings her short solo passage with distinction, and the work ends in ecstatic triumph.

All but one of Bax’s works for chorus and orchestra have now been recorded by Chandos, with Enchanted Summer, Walsinghame, and Fatherland  available on CHAN 8625. The exception is the short occasional piece To Russia (1944), with words by the Poet Laureate, John Masefield. This is slightly less than four minutes long and would certainly have fitted on to the new disc; but the extra cost of hiring a baritone soloist and of paying for an additional recording session would clearly have been prohibitive, and in any case neither poet nor composer is shown at his best in the piece. There is also St. George, a pageant-play that Bax wrote in collaboration with Masefield in 1947; but this exists in vocal score only and would need to be edited and orchestrated. (I did in fact orchestrate the brief prelude myself a few years ago just to see what it looked like in full score.)

The performances on this CD are very good indeed, and Martyn Brabbins does a magnificent job in directing the huge forces assembled in Leeds’s opulent and cavernous town hall (including an organ in To the Name above Every Name). With Stephen Rinker as the engineer, it goes without saying that the sound quality is distinguished, but unfortunately my audio equipment, whether using speakers or headphones, had a few problems with distortion of the voices, caused, I imagine, by the wide dynamic range; listeners with more expensive equipment will probably not have this trouble. The balance seems to favour the chorus, and I found myself turning the volume up for the orchestral passages and then turning it down again when the voices enter, as at the start of St Patrick’s Breastplate. My equipment had no problems with the Nocturnes, which were recorded in Manchester’s Studio 7 and have the same excellent sound quality as Vernon Handley’s set of the symphonies.

These works make a powerful impact, though anyone coming new to them should be warned that they contain a lot of strenuous and intense music,  richly orchestrated. In my experience, playing them all at one sitting is quite fatiguing on the ear. Better to savour them slowly, one at a time, and enjoy some of Bax’s most passionate and heartfelt music.

 

© Graham Parlett 2004