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BAX: Concert Review - 20.03.2004

Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam



Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra

Mark Elder, conductor


Paul Dukas                La Peri

Benjamin Britten       Les Illuminations (with John Mark Ainsley, tenor)

Henri Dutilleux          Sur le meme accord (Janine Jansen, violin)

Arnold Bax                Spring Fire



Review by Timothy Dowling


The Amsterdam Concertgebouw is undoubtedly one of the worlds most famous and alluring concert halls. Built in 1888, and recently carefully and tastefully renovated at not inconsiderable expense, it boasts both marvellous atmosphere and excellent acoustics. One can easily be transported far from the cares of the world in such a building, indeed on this very day as we huddled under our coats on the way to the hall. Once inside we were treated to a glorious afternoon’s music making, culminating in a wonderful performance of Spring Fire, one of Bax’s most delightful scores. Indeed conductor Mark Elder, in his short introduction, shared his love of the work, calling it “one of the glories of late romanticism”. He went on to encourage the public to look beyond the influences or Debussy, Ravel or Scriabin, and to hear the truly unique and individual voice of Bax.


Spring Fire is a work that Elder passionately believes in, and one which he has now performed on several occasions. Comparing this performance to the Handley recording on Chandos (which was also Elder’s own introduction to the work) it is quite noticeable how Elder has developed a personal interpretation quite removed from his older compatriot. Taking his time in the glowing Amsterdam acoustic, and aided by an excellent orchestra very experienced in late romantic music, he found much beauty and languor that Handley perhaps avoids, while never compromising the forward momentum so essential to making sense of the larger paragraphs. The opening was delivered in a glorious torpor, with soothing horns and delicate flute and harp raindrops. Throughout Elder always allowed the many details of orchestral colour register in a natural way. He is a conductor of restrained gesture, firmly in control with a soft contoured beat, which results in a wonderful depth to the sound. The slow movement “Woodland Love” was truly spellbinding at a daringly slow tempo, with judicious (and delicious) “portamenti” in the strings recalling an older style of orchestral playing. Elder has admitted finding the structure of the last movement difficult to bring off. No problems for this listener however, as the glorious restatement of the “Woodland Love” theme, capped with rich brass, and the whipping up of the final stretto brought the enthusiastic Dutch public to it’s feet.


Earlier in the evening Elder had opened with a judiciously paced performance of another glory of late romantic escapism, Dukas’ La Peri. This was also superbly played, with particularly beautiful horn playing. This music inhabits a not dissimilar sound world to Bax, and once more the warm glow of the Concertgebouw acoustic added it’s own lustre to Dukas’ perfumed harmony, and rich orchestration. The brass fanfare which preceded the ballet was also excellently and warmly played by the vibrant Radio Philharmonic brass.


John Mark Ainsley was the excellent soloist in Britten’s Les Illuminations, also keenly supported by a reduced string section. From my position in the balcony his French seemed incomprehensible. After hearing the repeat broadcast on the radio, however, this seemed less of a problem. The Concertgebouw is not a particularly large hall but the plush acoustic can be difficult for a singer’s diction. Henri Dutilleux’s subtle colours also came vividly to life, in his epigrammatic nocturne “Sur le meme accord” for violin and orchestra. Janine Jansen was the expressive, if at times elusive soloist.


All in all a great afternoon escape from the dreadful spring weather outside. Perhaps we may be lucky enough to have Mark Elder’s wonderful advocacy of Spring Fire set down for the cd buying public, and remain hopeful that he will perhaps champion the symphonies in due course.


Copyright  Timothy Dowling