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Sir Arnold Bax: First Recordings 

First recordings 1925-1949
Orchestral Music and
talk by Bax
Symposium 1336 

Review by Richard R. Adams

I regret not being able to welcome this disc more warmly as it is a very important issue containing a number of revelatory performances that have not been available commercially since the days of 78s.  If only a little more effort had been made to clean up these recordings then this would have been a release of extraordinary importance but as it is I feel compelled to warn those who might be interested to hear the treasures contained within to proceed with a little caution. 

Fortunately, some of the performances on this disc can be found on other discs in preferable masterings.  Sir Hamilton Harty’s sparkling (and still definitive) 1935 recording of Overture to a Picaresque Comedy with the London Philharmonic appears on an all Harty disc available from Dutton Labs that also contains music by Berlioz, Sibelius, Smetana, Schubert and Handel.   The Oliver Twist and Malta G.C. excerpts appear in a series of ‘British Film Music’ discs available from Pearl (Vols. 1 and 2 respectfully).  The Pearl masterings are a good deal cleaner and have all been transferred at the correct pitch.  The Symposium transfers of “The Pickpocketing”, “The Chase” and “Fagin’s Romp” from Oliver Twist are a fraction flat.

Everything else on this disc is appearing on compact disc for the first time and while some of the selections are mere curiosities such as the Fanfare for a Cheerful Occasion from 1932 and the Fanfares for the Wedding of T.R.H. Princess Elizabeth and The Duke of Edinburgh from 1947, the other items are all landmark recordings that tell us a great deal about how Bax’s music was played by those who knew the composer well.   Symposium is to be congratulated for resurrecting these recordings and we have also to thank The Sir Arnold Bax Estate, Lewis Foreman, Stephen Lloyd, Graham Parlett and Warwick Round for providing their private 78 recordings for this collection.  

On the back cover, Symposium proclaims that it used an “Authentic Transfer Process” in the mastering of these performances.  I take that to mean that these recordings were transferred raw from the original source with almost no editing or cleaning other than to splice the side changes together (and that has not been very well done) because that is how it sounds. There may have been some removal of loud clicks and pops as the recordings are relatively free of those but there is so much 78 surface noise in all these recordings that the music is at times drowned out all together.  For instance, it is almost impossible to assess Albert Coates’ 1925 recording of Mater ora Filium (other than to say it is extremely slow) because the surface noise is so loud.  Goossens’ magnificent 1928 recordings of Tintagel and Mediterranean are only a little clearer, I’m afraid.   The 1947 recording of Morning Song, with Harriet Cohen at the piano and Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting a pick-up orchestra, is certainly better recorded and a little easier to decipher but still there is an annoying swish that is constant and it certainly hampered my enjoyment of this charming work. 

On a slightly more positive note, I commend Symposium for using the best sounding recording of Bax’s 1949 BBC talk that I’ve ever heard.  I understand the source for this may have been the BBC itself but evidently about a minute of the talk was missing so Symposium had to use a very noisy private copy to fill in the gap and that results in a quite jarring listening experience.  Surely, Symposium could have cleaned this minute or so of tape to make it match a little better with the pristine sounding original.  It’s quibbling, I know, but a little intervention here would have helped a lot. 

Of course, those with audio editing software such as Adobe Audition (formerly Cool Edit) and Sonic Solutions will have no problems taking the raw product that this disc provides and with a little judicious use of filtering, hiss reduction and equalizer, will be able to remove much of the unwanted noise to reveal the music underneath but those without that software or knowledge of how to use it will need to satisfy themselves with what is on offer here and I warn that will require a good deal more tolerance and patience than I have.  Still, I do recommend this disc to Baxians with an interest in historic performances as you will find Goossens’ performances of Tintagel and particularly Mediterranean revelatory (no other conductor has made as much of that beguiling miniature).  I hope that Michael Dutton may someday try his hand at mastering the Goossens recordings for no doubt he could improve on the work that has been done here.  And based on these riveting performances, Goossens is a conductor whose recordings deserve to be revived and presented using the best technology possible.  If you have it, why not use it?