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May 2005 Editorial 

A Triumphant Return to Manchester

Editorial by Richard R. Adams  

It is no exaggeration to say that Vernon Handley’s return to the BBC Manchester Studios in April to record his beloved Bax tone poems with the BBC Philharmonic was a triumphant occasion.  Tod was in a traffic accident last year in Munich that seriously exacerbated his existing health problems and resulted in his spending most of last year in a hospital.  It is only through that indomitable spirit of his that he was able to return to the podium.  He’s been actively conducting this year and when I saw him at the April sessions, I was reassured to see him looking so fit.  At present he requires two walking sticks to get around but Tod said he’s determined to be walking on his own before too long and I see no reason to doubt him.  And while he may be less mobile than he’d like, he is at the absolute height of his mental powers for the playing that he inspired from the BBC Philharmonic was remarkable even by their high standards.   

The BBC Philharmonic plays its heart out for Tod and they sounded absolutely riveted by the music they were playing. Tod had chosen a program of Bax favourites ( Garden of Fand , November Woods and In the Faery Hills) and one rarity (the Sinfonietta).  After each take, players crowded into the control room to hear what had been recorded and to discuss with the Maestro any adjustments that needed to be made to their playing.  I was told that level of interest by the players doesn’t always take place but then I think they all knew they were involved in a very important recording.  This was, after all, the follow up disc to the BBC Philharmonic’s Gramophone Award winning set of Bax symphonies. Those earlier recordings set an enormously high standard but I left the sessions believing that if anything, Handley, his players and the production team had actually surpassed themselves with this disc.   

The schedule was taxing. Tod had two days to rehearse and then two days to record the four scores.  The BBC Philharmonic sight-reads cold better than most orchestras can play after hours of rehearsal so Handley’s task was to impress upon the players his own personal vision of these scores and he was able to do this with remarkably little effort for his baton technique says all but I will add that during these particular sessions, Tod was more feisty than usual and once or twice made a few very pointed but witty remarks when he felt his player’s concentration was slipping.  I went out and spoke with him during one of the breaks and the first thing he said when I approached him was, “they really know how to play their Bax, don’t they.”  No argument there.   

As much as these sessions were a triumph for Tod and his players, they were an even greater triumph for the composer Arnold Bax.  Who would have predicted that Chandos would record three Bax works that already exist in its catalogue?  Had the Handley Bax symphony set not been such a critical and commercial success, this follow up recording would not have taken place. The latest figure I’ve heard indicates the symphony set sold more than 9,000 units and that’s an extraordinary number for a five-disc set.  The overwhelmingly positive press response no doubt helped sales as did  Handley’s reputation as the definitive interpreter of Bax, but it was the renewed interest in Bax that really made the uninitiated take a chance and buy the set.  Handley’s efforts, as well as those of David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos, Bryden Thomson on Chandos and the various conductors who recorded the symphonies for Lyrita have all made an impact and we should be grateful that Bax has been so well served on disc by such devoted champions otherwise he’d be just another obscure name in the Grove dictionary .   

If there is a hero in this story, it is assuredly Brian Pidgeon, former manager of the BBC Philharmonic and executive producer of most of their Chandos recordings.  There would be no Handley Bax set if it weren’t for Brian’s perseverance. He decided Handley should be invited to record a complete set of symphonies when he heard Tod and the BBC Philharmonic rehearsing the Bax Third Symphony for what was originally to be a BBC Music Magazine recording.  What he heard was so special that he invited Handley back to do the complete set for BBC Radio 3 and he miraculously persuaded Chandos to release the recordings as a new set. The 50th anniversary of Bax’s death was used as the selling point to produce the recordings but all understood it was the significance of having Vernon Handley’s interpretations set down for posterity that made the recordings so necessary.   

The symphony set included a recording of Bax’s most popular work, Tintagel.  With those recordings available, was there really a need for Handley to return and record more Bax?  Evidently Mr. Pidgeon thought so and he suggested Handley be invited back to record a program of his favourite tone poems to include a new Chandos premiere recording of the Sinfonietta.  Chandos agreed and the new set of tone poems is the result.   Assuming this latest disc sells well, Pidgeon would like to record more Bax discs with Handley and the BBC Philharmonic. We must all hope Chandos agrees with his plans for imagine Handley-led recordings of the Three Northern Ballads, The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew, Christmas Eve, Nympholept, Into the Twilight, Summer Music, The Happy Forest, Overture to Adventure, etc.  Lets keep our fingers crossed.   

Mr. Pidgeon would be the first to admit that he has been extraordinarily well served by session producer Mike George and sound engineer Stephen Rinker.   As a team, these three men are responsible for producing most of the BBC Philharmonic recordings on Chandos and that’s an extremely impressive record.  The combination of interesting repertoire, brilliant playing and conducting, superb sound and very high production standards assure that any recording this team produces will be worth hearing.  Pidgeon, George and Rinker are all fanatical in their attention to detail and committed to getting the very best possible take and it is that kind of precision and quality that produces Gramophone Award winning discs such as the Bax symphony set.   

Elsewhere on the site you can read Graham Parlett’s session report or visit Lewis Foreman's report on the MusicWeb site. I would only like to add that like most Baxians, I have a very special place in my heart for Garden of Fand and November Woods.  To hear both these pieces played live by this orchestra under Vernon Handley was an experience I’ll never forget.   I believe there’s been one great recording of November Woods and that’s the Boult recording on Lyrita but this new Handley performance surpasses it because with his broader tempos and more overtly expressive playing, he gives it a depth and power that I’ve not heard before.  All of us in the control room were left speechless after the first play through and we all agreed we had just witnessed something very special.  The performance of Fand was likewise broader but also more brilliantly characterized than in any other performance I heard other than perhaps Barbirolli but Handley is even more atmospheric in the opening and closing sections of Fand and in the lead into Fand’s ‘song of immortal love’ which under Handley took on a little poignancy in addition to a lot of passion.  Handley isn’t a conductor to wear his heart on his sleeve but in these scores and in the remarkable In the Faery Hills, Handley allowed for a little more expressive playing than is his norm with Bax.  I was at times reminded of Barbirolli in that his conducting was so personal and emotional but also extremely dynamic. The cataclysmic wave that overwhelms Fand’s island was truly terrifying in the new Handley performance because of the weight of the playing produced by the BBC Philharmonic and the brilliance of Stephen Rinker’s recording.    

Handley also worked miracles with Bax’s Sinfonietta, a work Bax himself had doubts about and asked not to be played.   The only available recording is a noble effort by Barry Wordsworth and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra but that orchestra sounds uneasy with the idiom and Wordsworth appears to be doing all he can to hold the players together.  The new Handley performance reveals the Sinfonietta to be a much finer, tighter and more interesting piece than previously believed and we all agreed Bax would have been proud of the work if he had been able to hear these players and Tod conduct it.   It makes a nice counterweight to the earlier more romantic tone poems.  

I left the recordings with tunes from Fand, In the Faery Hills and even the Sinfonietta resounding in my head.  I am so enthusiastic about this disc that I really can’t wait for it to be issued and available for all to hear because I believe it will do as much to restore Bax’s reputation as did the early symphony set and prove once and for all that Bax wrote other scores as interesting, beautiful and perhaps even more powerful than Tintagel.  I don’t know when Chandos intends to release this disc but I’d like to suggest they issue it in time to honour Tod’s 75th birthday in November this year.   I can’t think of a better disc to demonstrate why he is such a beloved conductor by all of us who cherish this music.