Vernon Handley Records Bax in
THE SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE
Last Modified October 7, 2003
Vernon Handley Conducting
the BBC Philharmonic in August 2003
Session Report by Richard R.
Vernon Handley’s mad dash to
record the Bax symphonies for Chandos in time for an October 2003
release date continued in August with the recording of the Fifth and
Seventh Symphonies in Manchester.
I had the privilege of being able to attend the
sessions and witness the extraordinary playing of the BBC
Philharmonic as well as the technical brilliance of the BBC
Manchester recording team who are producing and engineering the
recordings for Chandos. Most
importantly, I was able to watch first hand the mastery of a great
conductor in music that he has known, loved and performed all of his
Like most Baxians, I have been
waiting for a Handley-led cycle of the symphonies ever since I first
became familiar with the composer.
Almost intuitively I could tell that earlier efforts to
record the symphonies, whatever their merits, fell short of what was
possible in this music. My
suspicions were confirmed when I first heard Handley’s broadcast
performances of the Bax symphonies from the 1970s and 80s.
Despite the less then perfect sound and often uneven playing,
the interpretations revealed what I had missed in most other
performances and that was a feeling of total conviction as
well as a rock-solid command of the music’s architectural design.
Where other conductors sounded timid and reluctant to follow
Bax’s demands for sharp accents, sudden attacks and often very
fast tempos, Handley was brave enough to take Bax at his word and as
a result his performances revealed an icy brilliance and hard core
that related these symphonies more to the elemental sound world of
Nordic and Russian music then the more introverted romanticism of
Bax’s British contemporaries. Handley’s
Bax is a good deal leaner and more austere than what we’ve heard
before and those who were raised on Bryden Thomson’s Chandos cycle
are in for quite a shock.
Admittedly, I was a little
worried because most of the Handley/Bax symphony recordings that I
have heard are more than 30-years old and I wondered if the great
Maestro’s conducting may have mellowed a little in the passing
years. After all, that
was true of his great mentor, Sir Adrian Boult, whose recordings
from the 1940s and 50s are a good deal more energetic than those he
made during his Indian summer for EMI and Lyrita. Just
compare his earlier Decca Tintagel with his Lyrita account and
you’ll see what I mean. I really wasn’t sure what to expect when
I arrived at the BBC Manchester Studios on Tuesday Morning August 5,
2003. I entered into the huge auditorium where I found the players
of the BBC Philharmonic going over their parts.
Maestro Handley was on the podium talking to the players but
as soon as he saw me he stepped off the podium and came over to
welcome me to the sessions.
He appeared a little tired but he was full of enthusiasm for
the work that was ahead of him and he informed me that he had heard
the edits of the previous recordings in this cycle and he said he
was very pleased with the results.
All the time he was speaking I was thinking how amazing it
was for him to have bothered to come over and welcome me knowing the
kind of pressure he was under but that kind of graciousness is
wholly characteristic of the man.
His manner with the orchestra, the production team and the
few guests who had been invited to attend the sessions was always
warm and affectionate even during those few moments when tensions
were high and things weren’t going as smoothly as they should.
Never once did I see him lose his temper or the control of
all that was going on around him even though he had a Herculean task
to achieve – the recording of two symphonies and an overture in
just four days. I
understand now why orchestral players love him so deeply.
In fact, once while I was speaking to him, a string player
came up to him and told him how much she enjoyed working with him
and added that she wished he would conduct the orchestra more often.
This was the typical response of just about every player I spoke
with -- they all
expressed their admiration for “Tod” even those who,
remarkably(!), don’t share his enthusiasm for Bax’s music.
the rehearsal was about to begin, I quickly took my place on the
seats immediately in front of the orchestra.
I was soon joined by my good friend Graham Parlett, the
eminent Bax musicologist and frequent guest to these sessions. He is
an indispensable part of the team due to his encyclopedic knowledge
of Bax’s music and manuscripts.
Bax’s printed scores are full of errors and Graham is the
authority who is called upon whenever there is a question about the
parts. Graham and
I sat together, both with our scores open and ready to follow along
but as Handley began his rehearsal, both of us put down our scores
and focused all attention on what was taking place in front of us.
While Handley is now in his early 70s, you would never guess
that from his energetic conducting.
His opening tempo for the first movement of the Fifth
Symphony was very brisk – much more so even than his earlier
broadcast performance. He
played through most of the first movement almost without a stop and
at several points throughout I shook my head in disbelief that the
BBC Philharmonic could sight read so well. As
a result of Handley’s vital conducting, the music sounded
incredibly tight and flowed more naturally then is sometimes the
case in this movement. Whatever concerns I had that Handley’s
conducting of Bax may have mellowed with the years was immediately
dispelled. In fact, the
opposite was true and I was hearing Bax in a manner unlike I
had ever heard before.
Graham Parlett and Vernon Handley
review a problem in the score.
The rehearsals were broken up
into three-hour segments with one or two short breaks within.
Handley and the orchestra ran through the entire Fifth
Symphony, the raucous Rogue’s Comedy Overture and the first
movement of the Seventh Symphony the first day.
The second day began with another rehearsal during which the
orchestra played through all three movements of the Seventh
appeared even more energetic and youthful than he had the first day.
The music appeared to be revitalizing him and the orchestra
was responding with even more incisive playing.
The fact that they were working from handwritten scores in
the Seventh Symphony and Overture only confirmed the extraordinary
abilities of these players.
Again the tempos that Handley adopted for the Seventh
Symphony were faster than any I’d heard before.
In fact, I thought the playing was almost too quick,
especially in the moody lento middle movement which seemed to lose
some of its atmosphere being driven at such an urgent pace.
The recording of the Seventh Symphony began that afternoon
and Graham and I were invited into the control booth with engineer
Stephen Rinker and producers Brian Pidgeon and Mike George.
Not being able to see the orchestra very well from where I
was sitting, I decided to follow along with my score while Handley
began recording the first movement.
What I noticed immediately was the scrupulous attention to
detail as well as the slower tempos he adopted from those he had
taken in the rehearsal. Now
Handley was allowing for more romantic phrasing and much slower
tempos in the quieter passages. Handley later told me that he
deliberately adopts faster tempos when first rehearsing a work in
order to allow the orchestra to later “relax” into the music.
Still, the overall tempos for the recording were on the
urgent side and Handley revealed the Seventh Symphony to be a much
more dramatic and even conflicted symphony than what I had
previously believed. Handley’s
recording will prove that the Seventh Symphony in no way
demonstrates a falling off of inspiration on Bax’s part. In
fact, as conducted by Handley, it has to be ranked among his very
Special mention must be made
of the BBC Philharmonic’s leader Yuri Torchinsky’s many solos
throughout the work – especially the very tricky “In Legendary
Mood” section of the middle movement.
In some of the other recordings, the violin solos sound
perfunctory but here Yuri really invested himself in the music and
managed to convey its strange atmosphere with playing that was as
delicate as it was virtuosic. Indeed,
the final recording of that middle movement was a revelation –
more impassioned and cohesive than any other recording I’ve heard
including the very fine Leppard account on Lyrita.
Handley’s tempos for the last movement of the Seventh were
the most urgent of all yet all the variations were shaped with
tremendous character and Handley drew extraordinary playing from the
winds in particular. The whole movement seemed to rush along until
the transition into the epilogue where Handley gradually allowed the
momentum to subside and relax into the most beautiful performance of
the epilogue that I’ve yet heard.
Handley believes the epilogue to be “Bax’s Farewell”
and he inspired the orchestra to play with extreme attention to
dynamics and it was here that Handley allowed for a little more
rubato. I know I was
fighting back tears at those closing pages and I suspect many will
do the same when they hear this music played from the CD.
Thursday and Friday were spent
recording the Rogue's Comedy Overture and Fifth Symphony.
The overture is a very difficult work and more time was taken
to get this one overture recorded then for any of the individual
movements of the symphonies. All
involved in these productions are obsessive perfectionists and no
slip-shod playing was allowed – not that that’s ever a problem
with the BBC Philharmonic! And
as I said before, for a man of 72-years, Handley has extraordinary
energy. It was
remarkable to watch him record a section and then practically sprint
into the recording studio to hear the playback – usually followed
by several players from the orchestra.
At this point, Handley and Mike George would then carefully
review what had just been recorded, notate on the score what errors
there were and then Handley would go out and record another take.
Their preference was to record complete takes of entire
movements and then patch in only those few sections that needed
fixing. With a very
fixed recording schedule to observe, this process can be quite tense
and I could see that Handley was under a lot of pressure to get a
lot of music recorded in a very short period of time.
It helped that all involved were giving their all, especially
the orchestra and this was due in large part to Handley’s ability
to create a joyful working atmosphere through the use of his
razor-sharp use of humor. All
were relieved when the overture was recorded and equally surprised
that a work, virtually unplayed since its premiere (Handley actually
recorded this work once before for Lyrita but that performance has
never been issued) could turn out to be so infectiously enjoyable.
It will be a pleasant discovery for all Baxians.
The Fifth Symphony was
recorded last and again Handley managed to secure a performance that
is more urgent and concentrated than any I’ve heard before.
I believe it will be one of the highlights of the set.
Handley was particularly pleased with his handling of the
tricky transition into the epilogue of the final movement of the
Fifth Symphony. This
section has confounded just about every other conductor who has
recorded the work and Handley navigates his way through the epilogue
to the coda without having to resort to any of the awkward
tempo shifts that can cause the music to bog down.
Handley said that his interpretation of the Fifth
Symphony has probably changed the most over the years and he now
feels that he has managed to get it right.
All who witnessed the recording were in agreement.
During the breaks in the
recording of the Fifth Symphony, I spoke with several players in the
orchestra as well as the recording engineer, Stephen Rinker, and
executive producer, Brian Pidgeon, whom we all have to thank for
this project taking place for it was Brian who first invited Handley
to record the Third Symphony and Tintagel with the BBC Philharmonic
in January 2002. Those
recordings were originally intended to be released as a BBC Music
Magazine companion disc but after hearing the brilliance of those
performances, Pidgeon decided to invite Handley to record all the
symphonies for BBC Radio 3. He said he knew how eager Handley was to
do the entire set and here was an opportunity to get all the Bax
symphonies recorded in time for the 50th anniversary of
Bax’s death. Because
the BBC Philharmonic has such a close relationship with Chandos, he
approached that label with a proposal to release the recordings
commercially. To his
great surprise, Chandos agreed.
This was a remarkable turn of events due to the fact that
Chandos already has the Thomson Bax cycle in its archives but
evidently they too were impressed by the performance of the Handley
Bax Third and agreed it would be great to release a new set of
symphonies from Bax’s great interpreter. Pidgeon
said Radio 3 will broadcast the performances the first week of
October during their afternoon orchestra program. Handley’s public
performance of the First and Sixth Symphonies in early September
will be broadcast that same week as well.
has also produced two other forthcoming Bax discs for Chandos
including the complete score to Oliver Twist, conducted by Rumon
Gamba and a disc of Bax choral works for orchestra including To the
Name Above Every Name and St. Patrick’s Breastplate with Martyn
Brabbins conducting, all with the BBC Philharmonic.
These discs will also be released this autumn.
John Bradbury, principal
clarinet for the BBC Philharmonic, has been a Bax admirer ever since
he first played the Bax Clarinet Sonata while he was in college.
He can be heard as the solo clarinet in the Chandos recording
of Concertante for
Three Solo Wind Instruments, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.
Bradbury is drawn to Bax partially because of the way he
writes for his instrument. “I
think Bax must have liked the clarinet,” he says. “Technically,
his writing is very difficult especially in the fast passage work
but the many slow solos are very rewarding to play.
I also love his sense of rhythm and he writes a lot in the
low register, which is a sign of a composer who really knows and is
exploring the instrument.” I
asked John how the orchestra was responding to playing the music.
“Well,” he said, “when you record two symphonies in a
row like what we are doing this week, the process can be quite
tiring. But it is a
very exciting project and the orchestra is realizing that --
especially as it’s being done with Tod.”
I then asked John what makes Handley’s Bax so remarkable.
“Well, the music is obviously completely within him and he
drives it when it could get stuck or become too sentimental and that
marks him out from any other conductor of Bax that I’ve worked
with. He knows the
music phenomenally well and his enthusiasm for it is quite
David Chatwin is the principal
bassoon of the BBC Philharmonic and his experience with Bax began in
the late 1960s when he played the Garden
of Fand in
the Royal College of Music Orchestra conducted by Handley.
“I just fell for that music hook, line and sinker partially
because the bassoon parts are so well written and I could also see
that the orchestration was superior to so much other English
music,” he said. “After
that experience of playing Fand, I went out and photo copied every
single Bax score I could find and taped everything of his that came
on the radio. I just adored that music.”
I asked Chatwin, who incidentally conducted the premiere
performance of Cathaleen-ni-
Hoolihan in 1970, what it feels like to be taking part in this
absolutely amazing – especially to be able to do all the
symphonies and I love the sound that Handley is getting from this
orchestra in Bax’s music. He has lived and breathed these
symphonies all his life and there is still so much that he wants to
put into the music. He
still feels so much passion for it.”
I asked David how the orchestra seems to be responding to
playing these scores and he said that has been varied.
“I think some people are upset because the scores are very
hard to play with lots of changes in key and some of the parts are
very hard to read. The
parts for the Seventh are very badly written out and I suppose some
people just find it embarrassing to be playing music by an English
composer that is passionate and wears its heart on its sleeve –
some people have a real problem with that.”
The sound engineer, Stephen
Rinker, is also a devout Baxian and has engineered all the BBC
Philharmonic Bax recordings.
He says he got to know most of Bax’s scores from the
earlier Chandos recordings with Bryden Thomson although his very
first experience with Bax came from sight-reading the opening
bassoon part in Bax’s Third Symphony when he played in the London
Repertoire Orchestra conducted by Ruth Gipps, whom he says was a
great Bax enthusiast. I
asked Stephen how he would compare his engineering with that of the
earlier Chandos set. “I
think some of the earlier Chandos Bax recordings were overly
reverberant and processed and of course they were all done at
various venues. Our
recordings are all done in the studio and what we’re trying to do
is reflect Tod’s approach and get all that amazing detail that he
is drawing from the orchestra.
Bax was an amazing orchestrator and we’re simply trying to
do justice to his music. We’re all committed to do the best by Bax
because this is such an important project.” I asked Stephen what
it is like to work with Handley. “He’s been a musical hero of
mine for years so it’s a fantastic opportunity to do all these
symphonies with him.”
When the sessions ended on the
8th of August, the orchestra began a much-deserved three
week holiday. For the
production team, on the other hand, the arduous process of editing
the recordings was still before them.
In early September, the same production team, Handley and the
BBC Philharmonic reunited to record the last two symphonies in this
project, the First and the Sixth. All will be edited and then
prepared by Chandos for an October release date.
Everyone involved in this project seems to understand that
this set is being more keenly awaited than just about any other
project they’ve been involved with and because of that, every
effort has been made to assure its success.
For Handley, these recordings are the culmination of a
life-long devotion to Bax’s music and for the rest of us, they
will likely become the benchmark by which all future recordings of
Bax's symphonies will be judged.
Photos by Richard R. Adams -
Photo Editor Christopher Webber
Copyright © Richard R. Adams