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Tuesday 19 December 2006, 1.55 pm,  Studio 7 Concert Hall, Manchester

BBC Philharmonic, leader Yuri Torchinsky, conductor Vernon Handley

Music by Arnold Bax

Nympholept

Into the Twilight

Red Autumn

Northern Ballad No. 1

Northern Ballad No. 2

Prelude to a Solemn Occasion – “Northern Ballad No. 3”

Review by Tony Williams


    Tuesday 19 December was one of those unique occasions for lovers of Bax’s music – a concert, free of charge, devoted to works of Bax, played by the BBC Philharmonic, under the indefatigable and brilliant Vernon Handley. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3, and the only thing which seemed out of place in the announcer’s introduction was his reference to Tod having been a champion of Bax’s music ‘for several years’: if he had substituted ‘decades’ for ‘years’ he would, of course, have been closer to the mark! One should say at the outset that it was amazing that the Orchestra could play so much music, all of it totally new to them, and some of it from old handwritten parts, after only a day and a half’s rehearsal. This was a tribute both to their musical ability and powers of concentration as well as to Tod’s professionalism as a conductor and infectious enthusiasm for this music.

     The concert divided neatly and appropriately into two halves. The first half was devoted to works of Bax’s lush orchestral style and rich melodiousness characteristic of his output before the First World war: Nympholept, Into the Twilight, and Red Autumn, in a new orchestration by Graham Parlett, another indefatigable and distinguished champion of Arnold Bax. The works after the interval – the three Northern Ballads – embodied a starker style and darker palette which can be associated with Bax’s compositions in the late 1920s and 1930s.

    The concert began with Nympholept, which was first composed, for piano, in 1912 and orchestrated in 1915. From the very first bars a smile crossed our faces – we knew we had arrived in Bax’s sound world, unique to Bax, despite echoes of this composer or that; it was a magical atmosphere of forest or sea. Indeed this opening, with its combination of sustained chords and undulating triplets, put me in mind of the beginning of Tintagel (and, for that matter, of Spring Fire): all is quite still, but we sense a tension which indicates that things will soon start happening. The third section, marked: ‘elfin – soulless’, with many ravishing solos for woodwind (beginning with the piccolo) and all the stringed instruments, was especially beautiful. Bax tells us that Nympholept, as the title implies, concerns someone walking in a haunted forest at dawn of a summer’s day and being beguiled by nymphs. ‘Meshed in their shining and perilous dances’ this person is ‘rapt away for ever into the sunlight life of the wild-wood’. Yet to my ears some of the most tumultuous and exhilerating passages could equally have been impressions of wild seascapes. All in all I have never heard the piece hang so well together as on this occasion (Tod was over a minute brisker than Lloyd Jones on his Naxos CD with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and two minutes quicker than Thomson with the London Philharmonic). However, the performance sounded as if further rehearsal would be needed before the recording for CD. The first violins in particular were ragged at times and they were also occasionally drowned by the brass from my vantage point – adjacent to and above the second violins to the right of Tod.

    No concert of Bax’s music would be complete without a work which betrays the influence of Ireland and the Celtic revival on the composer. The tone poem Into the Twilight, of 1908, falls into this category. Bax quotes at the beginning of his manuscript score Yeats’s poem of the same title, written in 1893, and undoubtedly the composer attempted to capture in music some of the spirit of Yeats’s poem, which opens thus: ‘Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn, / Come clear of the nets of wrong and right; / Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight, / Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.’ Bax referred to his tone poem as a ‘mild and rather hesitant essay in Celticism’, and commented specifically that the music of this piece ‘seeks to give a musical impression of the brooding quiet of the Western Mountains at the end of twilight, and to express something of the sense of hypnotic dream which veils Ireland at such an hour’. There are two, related, themes, the second of which is an adaptation of a tune which Bax had  employed in his earlier Yeatsian tone poem Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan of 1903-5 (which itself is an orchestration of a string quartet movement composed in 1903). Between the initial appearances of the two themes there sounded like a definite echo of the Prelude to Wagner’s Rheingold. Clearly Germany had not been banished for good by Ireland in Bax’s musical and cultural allegiance! In the extended presentation of the opening thematic motif of Into the Twilight, a feature present also in Nympholept became even more noticeable, namely the wonderful orchestral colouring from the brightness of the two harps to the dark browns of bass clarinet and contrabassoon. Handley succeeded in this expansive performance in building up contrasting layers of sound, now lightly, now richly textured, as the two themes, or fragments or variants of them, were taken up in turn by different sections of the orchestra, and soloists from these sections. The whole culminated in the final glorious enunciation of the gorgeous tune with trombones and tuba adding their weight for the first and only time. This was certainly the finest interpretation I have heard, and despite lasting over 13 minutes it was a taut performance beside which Thomson’s, with the Ulster Orchestra, sounds curiously unfocussed.

     Graham Parlett has achieved an imaginative and idiomatic orchestration of Red Autumn, which was originally completed by Bax for piano in 1912, and then re-cast for two pianos in 1931. In Tod’s hands it was urgent and stormy, in comparison to the two-piano performance I have heard by Piers Lane and Kathron Sturrock. The only thing I missed – at least at a first hearing – was a greater contrast provided by the beautiful, lyrical central section, its tune emerging out of the opening chromatic material after about two minutes. This is potentially a magic moment, as if the composer is harking back briefly to spring amidst the melancholy of autumn. In this performance it did not stand out so much as in the two-piano version. I wonder if the impact of the tune would have been greater if it had been introduced by the brighter-sounding flute rather than oboe?

      I felt that Vernon Handley’s idea of playing the three Northern Ballads together, as if constituting a single composition, proved to be successful. In his interview with Richard Adams (see the Arnold Bax website) Handley regards the Northern Ballads as a potential three-movement symphonic work. This was the second time that Tod has performed the three Ballads together, having previously done so in a concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra. The interesting thing is that, before the Manchester concert, I could never make much of the third Ballad, a Prelude to a Solemn Occasion. But as I shall indicate, it worked superbly in this concert as an effective conclusion to the Ballads as a whole. Bax himself described his Northern Ballad No.1, of 1927, as ‘a general impression of the fiery romantic life of the Highlands of Scotland before the opening up of the country subsequent to the ’45’.  Compared with the performance of Northern Ballad No 1 conducted by Sir Adrian Boult on Lyrita, Handley presented the ballad as a gloomy work, albeit full of energy, one scarcely lightened by repeated rallying calls and thematic motifs derived from them. Indeed, the opening section as a whole moved with a weiry, ominous tread. Handley’s view is surely appropriate, since it may well have been the bleak legends of the Highland clans which were in the forefront of Bax’s imagination and whose mood he primarily wished to evoke in this work. And such an interpretation helped to integrate Northern Ballad No.1 as part of Tod’s proposed larger work in three movements, whose mood is predominantly dark. The conductor gave the Ballad time to unfold along these gloomy lines and, at around 11 minutes, this performance was considerably longer than Boult’s.  The middle section did, however, provide a beautiful contrast with its Caledonian flavour, especially the oboe’s lamenting tune with its ‘Scotch snap’ and other delightful solos based on this tune, around which the strings then wove a rich tapestry.     

          The second Ballad, like the first, is for the most part gloomy in mood, in keeping with Bax’s comment that the work conveys ‘an atmosphere of the dark north and perhaps dark happenings among the mists’. The piece opens with a superb, concise exposition of the dark, related thematic motifs which come to dominate the work. I have not managed to get hold of scores of the Ballads, so some of the references to the music I make may not be accurate. But the first time there is relief from the gloom comes in an extended lyrical passage after about four minutes which constitutes a second section of the work. Here a beautiful theme is introduced by woodwind instruments, and it is then taken up and developed by the strings in a rich passage. Given the probable time of its initial composition (1927), could this be Bax, in the midst of his reflections on some grim episode or episodes in the north, re-living his new-found love for Mary Gleaves? Certainly there seems to be an echo of Wagner’s Tristan in this lovely episode. The third section, with further re-workings and transformations mainly of earlier darker themes, is one which in previous performances (including Tod’s earlier recording with the RPO) I have found hardest to follow. But with the music ever on the move in Tod’s taut interpretation with the BBC Phil, this section too fitted nicely into place. At the conclusion of the work there is a definitive transition from darkness into light, the hopelessness of winter giving way to the ‘exultancy’ (Lewis Foreman) of springtime. At around 14 and a half minutes duration in this performance, Northern Ballad No.2 was made to sound more successfully integrated structurally than previously.

        The sinister opening of Northern Ballad No.3 immediately places it into the predominantly gloomy world of the second Ballad. But then the main tune, of ceremonial character, first crops up in the woodwind and is subsequently expanded in noble fashion by the strings. Here Tod’s positioning of first and second violins to his left and right was particularly effective, as the strings played the tune for all its worth. Now what happened definitively only at the end of the second Ballad – the movement from darkness to light – becomes as it were the main mood of the third Ballad, and the piece as a whole presents a most satisfactory sense – and especially in the context of the three Ballads played together – of resolution and affirmation. In this I was reminded of the third movement of Bax’s 7th Symphony, although the concluding bars of the Ballad are more akin to the triumphant, hymn-like epilogue of the 5th Symphony rather than the 7th Symphony’s serene epilogue. (Northern Ballad No. 3, which was sketched in 1927, was actually orchestrated in 1933, one year after the completion of the 5th Symphony.) I rather hope that the optional organ part towards the end is not superimposed on the recording, for the conclusion had just the right degree of ripe nobility, rich and luminous, without the need for amplification by an organ.

       Vernon Handley looked frail, and his pale face and red nose and box of tissues on the podium suggested that he was suffering from a cold. But none of this dampened his energy and commitment and his ability to inspire the Orchestra to such satisfying performances. And when given the necessary polish here and there, I felt they would be bound to make up yet another glorious addition to Tod’s Indian summer of Bax recordings.

 

Copyright Tony Williams 2006