Bax's earlier works the Symphonic Variations is a monumental
yet enigmatic work. The whole has a mystical and hieratic air.
The work always makes me suspect some symbolist schematic like
the cathedral structure read into Havergal Brian's Gothic.
There is little by way of surface glamour and it is drastically
different in mood and imaginative range to Winter Legends,
his other major work for piano and orchestra. Winter Legends
bids fair to be his greatest work along with the Symphonies
2 and 6, the Piano Quintet and November Woods. Symphonic
Variations is restless, rhapsodic. Its triumphs are personal
inward statements, its tragedies are ones of some psychological
anterior - a dark continent indeed. A couple of years previously
Bax had completed a piano-centric work for piano and string quartet.
This Piano Quintet, his earliest masterpiece, is a triumph of
tragic beauty and tragedy. However the Symphonic Variations
take a different track altogether. There is a Medtnerian idyllic
reflective quality to the work. It has its demonstrative and victorious
moments of course but if Bax had called the work 'Idyllic Variations'
no-one would have blinked. Bax let his virtuoso piano tendencies
have free rein and these tend towards Balakirev, Grieg and Liszt
rather than Brahms or Beethoven. The writing rises to dense complexity
of harmony from time to time. The orchestra is given plenty of
the degree of elaboration of the piano part it is no wodner that
Sorabji wrote of the piece that it was ' without any doubt the
finest work for piano and orchestra ever written by an Englishman
... elaborate and intricate in texture both pianistically and
orchestrally, it is superbly written for the solo instrument,
making full and brilliant use of modern technique.'
work was his first concerto-style piece. It had its origins in
1916, being completed on Armistice Day 1918. It lasts some three
quarters of an hour as premiered by Henry Wood at a Prom concert
on 23 November 1920. Harriet Cohen, the soloist, was the dedicatee
and owned and controlled the score. The original version was cut
extensively and this shortened version (its elisions much lamented
by Sorabji) is the one that Cohen played frequently between the
wars performing it for the last time at the Queens Hall in 1938.
original score languished until a performance by Patrick Piggott
in 1963 on the BBC Overseas Service. Joyce Hatto and the
forces on this recording also revived it at Guildford Civic Hall
on 2 May 1970. A few days later this recording was made at EMI's
Abbey Road studio.
Hatto tells of how she first came into contact with the Bax score.
It was through a recommendation from Constant Lambert whose Concerto
for piano and nine instruments she had learnt for a ballet performance.
He recommended the Bax work strongly and referred her to Chappells
the publishers. Hatto played the piano part to Mátyás
Seiber and as a result of his intervention Chappells managed to
locate a full score.
Fourth Symphony and the Symphonic Vaiations were avaialble on
high quality cassette transfers by Mike Skeet's company in the
1980s. The cassette was FED-TC-001. The original Revolution LP
commented in my review of the Concert Artists' CD of the Fourth
Symphony about the great 'what if'. Would a Handley cycle of the
seven Bax symphonies have made a real and positive difference
to the Bax revival? What would it have been like and how different
would it have been from the impending Handley cycle from Chandos?
Hearing the volatile, poetic and sturdily heroic-enigmatic pianism
of Joyce Hatto in the Variations makes me berate whatever powers
that be for obstructing Ms Hatto from recording Winter Legends
a work that without any equivocation belongs among the finest
works for piano and orchestra of the Twentieth Century. Strange
how neither of these two works is called ‘Concerto’. They share
the same title as Franck's much played set and retain the reference
to 'Symphony' while Winter Legends is subtitled 'Sinfonia Concertante'
- again holding tenaciously to the symphonic form.
detailed notes are by Burnett James with a substantial contribution
from Joyce Hatto. I have pillaged these notes shamelessly for
the purposes of this review.
is a mystic-enigmatic work with an idyllic Olympian character
given its wayward head by Joyce Hatto and Vernon Handley. The
much more recent recording by Margaret Fingerhut is in better
sound and has the advantage of an urtext version. However nothing
better captures the rapturous pioneering spirit of the Bax revival
than Hatto’s version. Such a pity that she did not record all
four Bax piano sonatas and is it too late for her to tackle Winter
Legends, I wonder.
can offer the complete Concert Artist catalogue