Raymond Leppard on Bax
An Intervew with Richard R.
THE SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE
Last Modified January 12,
Raymond Leppard is best known
to Baxians for his classic recordings of Bax's Fifth and Seventh
Symphonies made for Lyrita in the 1970s. He is a
renowned scholar and performer of Baroque music but his musical
interests are extraordinarily wide-ranging. He has written
extensively on music and is well known for several of his film
scores. He is currently music director of the Indianapolis Symphony
Orchestra and was music director of the BBC Northern (now the BBC
Philharmonic) in the 1970s. In addition to his many
accomplishments, he has been honored with the title of Commander of
the British Empire.
Richard Adams: At the
time you made your classic recordings of Bax’s Fifth and Seventh
symphonies for Lyrita, your reputation as a Baroque music specialist
was internationally known. As a result, you must have seemed
an unlikely choice to record Bax. How did you become involved
with those recordings?
Raymond Leppard: I don’t remember the particular
circumstances, it’s so long ago, but I have always – often
unsuccessfully – tried to resist being type-cast and the offer
from Lyrita was an opportunity along those lines and one not to be
RA: Had you been familiar with Bax’s music before those
recordings were made?
RL: When I was a school boy I used to play several of the Bax
piano sonatas and the shorter genre pieces like In a
Vodka Shop. I also played the Viola Sonata.
Then at Cambridge I played viola in the Oboe Quintet – the
two-piano piece Moy Mell, sang quite a few of the songs
(I was choral scholar at Trinity.) In those days
too, one could buy quite reasonably the miniature scores
published by Murdoch and I had them all. Of course I was
aware that he was gradually becoming unfashionable but Patrick
Hadley, Professor of Music at Cambridge and a much-loved
character about the University, spoke so warmly of his friend
Bax’s talent that I never abandoned him. Then in my
early days in London I knew Harriet Cohen (was even a recipient
of the Harriet Cohen medal!) and that strengthened the link.
RA: Do you have any specific recollections about recording
those symphonies for Lyrita?
RL: I only remember the skills and spirit of the London
Philharmonic during those recordings.
Indeed, unfamiliar as they were with the works, we finished
well before the allotted time and got well into the Dvorak Legends
before the end and finished even these with a little extra time
– another recording I remember with affection.
RA: What was your initial impression of Bax’s Fifth
RL: I thought it so rich in sounds and so completely in
control of the right structure for its content – not always
the case with him – and a very high level of invention and
harmonic control. I still think it the best of the set and
most consistent in that particular ‘Irishness’ of Bax most
obviously seen in Tintagel. (I’ve no idea what
I mean by Irishness but I can recognize it and find it
RA: I think the Seventh Symphony is the most underrated of
the cycle. Would you agree?
RL: I don’t know, and am leery of too categorical a
judgement. It is the most slender in texture and spirit
but much superior to the rather poor Violin Concerto (which I
did with the BBC Philharmonic) written at the same time.
RA: Some commentators have criticized the slow movement of
the Seventh. Anthony Payne even went so far as to call it a
“dud.” Lewis Foreman has said your performance of that
movement is the most successful he has heard. Did you
find it especially challenging to ‘pull off’?
RL: No, I didn’t notice that it was ‘difficult.’
RA: If you were re-recording those symphonies now would make
any changes in your approach to them?
RL: I haven’t heard the recordings for years but suppose,
being older, there would be different emphases.
RA: Are you familiar with the other Bax symphonies?
What are your impressions of them?
RL: I like them all, least perhaps the Fourth.
RA: Have you been able to perform any of the Bax symphonies
RL: I’ve done the Fifth and Third in America and both with
the BBC Philharmonic when it was the BBC Northern.
RA: Would you like to perform any of them again?
RL: Of course, given the opportunity.
RA: You have conducted Tintagel on several
occasions including an unforgettable performance with the Chicago
Symphony. Is it your favorite of the tone poems?
RL: In December I conducted Tintagel with the
Munich Deutsche Rundfunk. They played it very well and
the packed house loved it. It isn’t that it’s my
favorite but, being the most approachable, it’s a great means of
introducing his music to audiences that don’t know it.
We played it here in Indianapolis as well as the Picaresque
Comedy and the Fifth Symphony.
RA: Are there other Bax works you have conducted or would
like to conduct?
RL: Scores of lesser-known works are hard now to come by,
especially in America, but I’m open to suggestions.
RA: John McCabe has very fond memories of playing the Winter
Legends under your direction.
RL: I remember that Winter Legends with John
McCabe and would like to repeat the experience.
RA: How do orchestras react to playing Bax’s music?
RL: If an orchestra come with at least a good
finger-acquaintance with their parts (and most American orchestras
can do this) than you can soon get them on the side of the music.
Sight-reading strange Bax is hazardous and usually an unproductive
experience on little rehearsal. The complex textures have to
be balanced or they sound turgid and players tire of them.
RA: Bax’s structures are often criticized for being
rhapsodic. Do you agree?
RL: Sometimes yes, but none of us is perfect.
RA: What challenges does Bax pose to the conductor?
RL: To distill the textures, ensure the harmonic pace is
correct and persuade the ornamental, filigree lines that what they
are doing, though highly important, is not the heart of the matter.
RA: Do you consider Bax a major or more peripheral figure in
RL: Any composer whose music is still played and is effective
after nearly 100 years must rank highly – think of those that
aren’t. We play the best of him – people in their
enthusiasm mustn’t push the lesser work – and audiences and
performers alike enter his world with it unique qualities and leave
it enriched. You can’t ask for more.
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