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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Orchestral Works: Volume 6 Russian Suite (Gopak, Nocturne, In a vodka shop) (Nocturne orchestrated by Graham Parlett) [18:46] Four songs for tenor and orchestra (Glamour, Slumber song, Eternity, A lyke wake) [22:30] Golden Eagle: Incidental music to the drama by Clifford Bax [11:33]** Saga Fragment for piano and small orchestra [11:12]* Romantic Overture [13:21]** Martyn Hill (tenor) Margaret Fingerhut (piano)* Richard Nunn (piano) ** London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson Rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London on 3-4 April, 1986 (Saga Fragment); 11-12 April, 1986 (Four songs); St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London, 2-3 November, 1988 (Russian Suite); 23-25 June, 1991 (Golden Eagle and Romantic Overture) CHANDOS CLASSICS CHAN X10159 [77:39]


 

I must declare, right from the outset, that I love Bax. I’ve never heard anything of his that I haven’t liked enormously. His music is muscular, big on sound and amazingly inventive. Every time I hear it I remember his small frame standing in a box modestly acknowledging the applause for one of his works receiving its premiere at the Royal Festival Hall and which I was privileged to attend. That memory causes me to marvel at how those big sounds contrast with his small stature. At last with such an excellent series, of which this disc is part, as well as those from other companies, Bax’s works are finding their well deserved place at the forefront in the history of 20th century British music. Certainly the conductor on this disc, the late Bryden Thomson, was a great champion of Bax, as is Vernon Handley, another Chandos-Bax stalwart.

Bax was extremely interested in the history, myths and music of many countries, and the first three tracks express his interest in things Russian. In 1909 he fell passionately in love with a Ukrainian girl and followed her home to the Ukraine, only to realise it was a hopeless cause by the summer of 1910. Then, in 1911, he saw the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev in London - it was their first appearance there. Bax was bowled over by the experience and proceeded to write music with the Russians in mind. Despite the fact that nothing came of this in terms of performance it has given us some wonderfully evocative music. The ‘Russian Suite’ is a perfect example, and brilliantly captures the Russian style, incorporating folk-like rhythms right from the very first note. “Gopak”, a spirited Ukrainian dance, is thoroughly “Russian” in both mood and execution with echoes of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov; its catchy main theme lingers long in the memory. “Nocturne” is a beautiful tune that has been orchestrated for this disc by Graham Parlett as all three movements originated as piano pieces and were first performed by Myra Hess. No evidence has been found to suggest that Bax ever completed the orchestration of this movement, as he did with the other two. It is a vivid depiction of a warm spring night in the Ukraine and, as the liner-note says, conjures up Gogol’s description of similar nights in his ‘Evenings on a farm near Dikanka’, in which he writes of the exquisite air “refreshing and warm, full of voluptuousness”.

Bax’s ‘Four songs for tenor and orchestra’ begin with ‘Glamour’ which came out of a poem Bax wrote in the Ukraine in June 1910 under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne. He composed the music in 1921, but it was only written for voice and piano. Despite the fact that the manuscript suggests that he intended to orchestrate it, no full score has ever been found, and indeed, the song was neither published nor performed during his lifetime. It was left to the Sir Arnold Bax Trust to commission composer and orchestrator Rodney Stephen Newton to realise and orchestrate the score. It is a remarkable achievement as it is totally convincing in its evocation of the “Baxian” sound-world. The remaining songs that Bax did write for orchestra emphasise how close Newton has come to achieving his aim to “give a good impression of what he (Bax) intended”. All four are beautifully sung by tenor Martyn Hill.

‘Golden Eagle’, incidental music to Bax’s brother Clifford’s drama about Mary, Queen of Scots, is wonderfully evocative of the events that include the murder of Rizzio, Mary’s private secretary. It is music that stands on its own unlike so much music written for films, and that’s just as well since the play itself survived only a few performances in 1945, and had not been revived.

‘Saga Fragment’ for piano and small orchestra, was written by Bax in 1933 for Harriet Cohen. It is an orchestration of his 1922 single movement Piano Quartet, but so skilfully did Bax arrange it that one would never guess that it hadn’t been written for orchestra in the first place. This is despite the fact that the piano part is virtually unchanged from its original incarnation. One Bax’s special talents was his ability to be able to pack a small piece with ideas that he fully exploited, none of which he left understated. His works always seem complete in every way, however short; brevity never seemed to cause him any problems, and he was able to tell a complete story in music, as well as the best short story writer in literature. It is lovingly played here by Margaret Fingerhut, who has won great praise for two other Bax recordings, and who we should hear more from. It was a great discovery for me.

‘Romantic Overture’, which rounds off the disc, was written in 1926 during a visit to see Delius at his house at Grez-sur-Loing, in France, together with Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine). It was written for Delius and is scored ‘for chamber orchestra’. There are some interesting things to listen out for, including a two bar quotation from César Franck’s Symphony in D, and which is thought to have been inspired by the lampooning of that symphony’s by Warlock in his ‘Cod Piece’ “The Old Codger”. Incidentally I can’t see what there is to lampoon in that symphony which has such great, memorable and instantly recognisable tunes. Perhaps this piece comes closest to what was once described as “cow-pat” music by some silly critic who was trying to be disparaging about English music - for what reason I know not. When I say this piece comes closest I simply mean it is easy to identify it as English, but no more than Finnish or Russian music is easy to recognise. Why should that be seen as detracting from the music itself? Whilst I’ve never been a particular fan of Delius, whose music seems to meander aimlessly rather than making a statement, this Bax piece is a delight and once again is teeming with ideas that are fully explored though it is a scant thirteen minutes in length.

This disc repackaging at mid-price recordings first issued during the 1980s and 1990s plays an important part in Bax discography. The issue of the Handley/BBCPO cycle of the Bax symphonies on Chandos has been taken as the cue for regrouping the company’s Bax recordings to complement the Handley set rather than the Thomson. This disc is the sixth newly established volume in that process. It is an excellent place to start for anyone wishing to dip their aural toe into Bax’s music.

Steve Arloff



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