Orchestra of the Swan
Bax: Piano Concertino
Ireland: Piano Concerto and Piano Legend
review by Richard R. Adams
Bax managed to summon all his
creative powers one last time when he wrote his final symphony but
following that work’s completion,
the 56-year old composer
more or less retired, “as a grocer”, as he was fond of saying and
it’s true that none of his later works are anything as ambitious or
as his sublime Seventh
Symphony from 1938/39.
He did manage to compose one
great film score in the late 1940s (for David Lean’s Oliver Twist)
and he wrote a very pleasing Piano Trio in 1946 that showed he
hadn’t lost his grasp of form but his inspiration faded quickly in
those years following the Seventh Symphony.
last major work is the Concertante for Left-Hand and Orchestra that
he wrote for Harriet Cohen after she injured her right hand.
This score is very slight
compared with “Winter Legends” and the “Symphonic Variations”
although it does contain a wonderfully romantic middle movement that
showed Bax could still write a fine tune when the spirit moved him.
Bax wrote another very
charming tone poem for orchestra and piano called “Morning Song” as
well as a few songs, piano pieces and one last tone poem, “A
Legend”, but aside from “Oliver Twist” and perhaps the Piano Trio,
little of what he wrote in his last year s can be numbered among his
a new work has emerged that was started soon after he completed his
existence prompts several questions – most notably why did Bax
abandon the work before completing some of the writing and all of
the orchestration and does it contribute at all to our understanding
of Bax the composer from this later period?
Bax started working on his
concertino for piano and orchestra in 1939 and he intended it to be
smaller scale than his previous works in that form thus giving it
the name “Concertino”, although in truth it’s not much shorter than
What prompted this score is
still a mystery although it’s easy to imagine the idea came from
Harriet Cohen rather than Bax as we know composition had became
something of an ordeal for the composer.
He got as far as writing out
the piano part for the outer movements and most of the middle
movement but he decided to put it aside when world events in 1939
left him in no mood to be writing music.
It was left in manuscript
form and was practically unknown until the great Bax scholar Graham
Parlett looked at it and decided Bax had completed enough of the
score to be able to finish it himself and produce something
Graham started working on
the score about five years ago and the results of his work can now
be heard on this new SOMM CD with the Orchestra of the Swan led
bravely by David Curtis and the fine British piano music advocate
Mark Bebbington as soloist.
The disc is coupled with
John Ireland’s glorious piano concerto as well as his wonderfully
evocative “Legend” for piano and orchestra.
It’s a very brave man who tries to
step into the shoes of a great composer and attempt to complete his
or her work.
It’s rare that these
“completions” turn out to be anything other than a hodge-podge of
what could have been although there are a few exceptions such as
Derrick Cooke’s completion of the Mahler 10th
and Anthony Payne’s completion of Elgar’s Third Symphony.
Bax has been remarkably
fortunate to have Graham Parlett in charge of most of his
reconstructions as there isn’t a scholar alive who understands Bax’s
style so innately.
Graham’s completions and
orchestrations have almost all been successful, some spectacularly
so such as the First Tamara Suite, the complete score to Oliver
Twist and my own favorite, his spine-tingling orchestration of “On
Based on those credentials
alone, it’s obvious Parlett is more than capable of taking whatever
Bax left and fleshing it out but even a great arranger can’t do much
to improve upon a score that isn’t too strong to begin with.
So, has Graham’s efforts on
behalf of the Concertino been worth it?
I believe the answer is a
qualified yes although there’s no denying the Concertino is far from
Bax at his best and it doesn’t take much imagination to understand
why Bax may have lost interest in it.
Nevertheless, there are
several fascinating moments in the work that indicate Bax was still
experimenting with sonority and form and it’s finer sections do make
us regret that Bax had lost most of his inspiration to write music
at this point in his life.
The opening of the Concertino is
vintage Bax and Bebbington exhibits tremendous control in his
handling of the ascending and descending arpeggiated chords that are
beautifully supported by the orchestra’s small body of strings that
still manage to create the mostly warm and luscious sound.
It’s a very wistful and
delicate opening to a work that later proves to be anything but
delicate as the movement’s primary theme is a stern and rather
turgid tune that requires
to pound his way through several pages of very dense chordal writing
that doesn’t quite flow from what’s come before.
Bax would have thinned out the piano writing as well as varied the
texture a bit had he decided to complete it but the problem is as
much the tune that isn’t strong enough to sustain the heavy-handed
treatment it receives.
The scoring places heavy
demands on the orchestra and unfortunately the stings sound just too
thin in places to provide the necessary weight required to balance
the heavy piano writing.
The orchestration is
Parlett’s and it sounds authentic and orchestra and conductor, David
Curtis, are undeniably sympathetic to the material and make the most
of what they have to work with.
They sound carefully
prepared and very enthusiastic but in places they sound
The middle movement is by far the
most interesting and successful of the entire work and also the
movement that required the most intervention from Parlett as he did
have to fill in some of the piano writing as well as orchestrate and
Nevertheless, it still
sounds as though he had more promising material to work with as Bax
provides us with a fine melody that foreshadows both the
from the slow movement of the Left Hand Concertante as well as looks
back to his tune from
“A Romance” that he also
uses as the basis of the middle movement of the Fourth Symphony.
This movement is oddly
compelling even though it too doesn’t quite hang together as it
There’s a quite stormy
middle section for Bebbington to show off his solo playing and here
he’s absolutely brilliant.
Curtis and his orchestra
support him with all the finesse and sensitivity this music
Unfortunately it’s a little more
difficult to judge the merits of the final movement because it’s
here that the Orchestra of the Swan sounds less assured in their
The movement opens with a
strangely jaunty theme that I believe is one of Bax’s least
appealing and it develops into music that I’m sure Bax intended to
be jubilant and celebratory but actually sounds plodding due to the
way the players drag
their way through it.
There’s no denying this is
a weak movement but perhaps it could sound more convincing with a
more brilliant interpretation.
So the Concertino is something of a
curiosity that is worth hearing, especially for it’s very effective
slow movement, but I doubt it’s going to endear itself into the
hearts of Baxians in the same way both the Symphonic Variations or
Winter Legends have.
I’m grateful to Graham
Parlett for making the work available as it does give us a glimpse
of Bax experimenting with his textures and trying to come up with
something more ‘popular”
and in this it anticipates
the Left Hand Concertante, which is itself a flawed but ultimately
more satisfying work.
Bebbington, Curtis and the
Orchestra of the Swan are all to be congratulated for their
commitment and skill in bringing the Concertino to life.
The rest of the program is made up
of two better-known and greater works by John Ireland.
Bebbington certainly knows
his Ireland and he plays the piano part with all the sensitivity
you’d expect and his performance of the Legend is arguably the most
haunting yet available.
Curtis and his orchestra
give very spirited and sympathetic support but again, I believe this
music requires larger forces so I’d have to recommend Parkin and
Boult on Lyrita for the Legend and Stott and Handley on Confer for
the Concerto but those interested in a slightly more intimate
approach to the Ireland while at the same time hearing some unusual
Bax should definitely investigate this very interesting disc.