Arnold Bax Website
Triumphant Return to Manchester
by Richard R. Adams
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
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
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 (
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.