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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Orchestral Music: Volume 7
Winter Legends for Piano and Orchestra (1929) [43:19]
Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1917-19) [49:34]
Margaret Fingerhut (piano);
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
CHANDOS CHAN10209-10X [43:19 + 49:34]


 

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There are two ways to obtain these Chandos recordings of Bax’s Symphonic Variations and Winter Legends as mp3 downloads. Alternatively, they are available together on a 2-CD set for the price of one mid-price recording. In fact, if you wish to purchase the reissued coupling, you would be better going for it in CD format (CHAN10209X) – it’s actually much cheaper than the mp3 at £7.99 for the 2-CD set from Chandos’s own theclassicalshop, even less from some suppliers, against £6 per CD for the mp3. Better value as a 320kbps mp3 download from classicsonline at £9.98, but that’s still dearer than the CDs. The cheapest way to obtain the mp3 version of CHAN10209 is from emusic – 12 tracks of whatever monthly total you sign up for.

The 2-CD reissue is actually very short value – hence the reduced price for the CDs – since the two shorter works have been relocated to other volumes: Morning Song is now coupled with the Violin and Cello Concertos on CHAN10154X, Saga Fragment with Four Songs and several orchestral pieces on CHAN10159X. 

For reasons which I have explained in my reviews of the Violin and Cello Concertos, I prefer these concertante works in their original couplings, the Violin Concerto on CHAN9003 and the Cello Concerto on CHAN8494, still available as mp3s, though not on CD. The Four Songs with which Saga Fragment is now coupled are far from being my favourite Bax works for reasons given in my review of their original coupling with the Seventh Symphony. Together with what seems to me the logical pairings of concertante works with piano, you have my reasons for preferring the couplings on CHAN8484 and 8516 (as detailed below), especially as the inspiration for Winter Legends and Saga Fragment is so similar. 

Windows Explorer reports that the files from CHAN8484 and 8516 are at 192kbps, whereas the newer downloads are at 320kbps, but that need be no serious handicap, especially when the newer coupling offers such very short value. Even at the lower bit-rate, the sound is very acceptable, though keener ears may prefer the CD or the newer downloads. 

Bax devotees will not expect virtuoso display in the Symphonic Variations, though newcomers may be looking for something more in the mould of César Franck’s piece of that name. The Bax work is more thoughtful, more discursive, more episodic – and, yes, if you are looking for something sharper and more focused, rambling. It takes six variations and an intermezzo, lasting almost 50 minutes to explore a number of themes, only loosely connected with each other – Youth, Nocturne, Strife, The Temple, Play, Enchantment and Triumph. It pre-dates the period when Bax’s inspiration was in full stride. For all that, it is well worth hearing and you are hardly likely to hear it better performed than here – in fact, I believe that this is the only available recording. You would be well advised to take advantage of Chandos’s offer to join the tracks of the Variations, to avoid brief drop-outs in music which is continuous across the tracks. 

Morning Song, commissioned for the 21st Birthday of Princess Elizabeth, is an attractive shorter piece, which also receives a sympathetic performance, ideally coupled with the Variations. Never one to settle anywhere for long, Bax was at the time living in one room above the bar in a pub in Sussex, hence the sub-title. 

I was very happy, too, with the performance of Winter Legends until I read RB’s review of the recording with Harriet Cohen and Clarence Raybould on the Dutton label (CDBP9751). Cohen was, of course the only begetter of the work and there are grounds for regarding her interpretation as authoritative. RB notes that this performance pulls no punches and is more exciting and abandoned than Fingerhut. To some extent the considerable difference in playing time (Cohen’s 39:39 against Fingerhut’s 43:19) is due to the restoration of several passages previously cut, but it may also explain that last 5% which I felt this Chandos recording was missing. 

Normally I favour Bryden Thomson’s leisurely tempi in Bax, giving the listener plenty of time to view the scenery, but Winter Legends is the exception to the rule: this is scenery which we probably want to move through a little faster. I guess the Cohen version, for all its sub-fusc off-air recording quality, provides that little bit extra that I’m looking for in a work which hitherto has almost (but not quite) convinced me of its worth. It’s definitely on my shopping list. 

I don’t wish to make too much of the shortcomings of the Fingerhut version, however. In general the performance supports those who see the work as quasi-symphonic – powerful music in the three-movement-plus-epilogue manner of all the numbered symphonies, dating from between the Third and Fourth of these. Unlike their recordings of the symphonies, Chandos track the epilogue separately. 

Saga Fragment is an orchestration of a movement from a Piano Quartet but it sounds anything but cobbled together. Fingerhut’s account is very convincing – if anything the most convincing of her performances of any of these four works; given that she offers the only available recording of this work and the only modern recording of the Legends, my recommendation of CHAN8484 is therefore only very slightly muted. 

The notes by Lewis Foreman are excellent and the recording, in any format, very good. If you have already made the acquaintance of Bax’s symphonies, these recordings – whichever format you choose – could well be an ideal next step. 

I’ve been listening to and writing about a good deal of Bax and Buxtehude recently – two very different composers, but I’ve yet to become sated with either.

Brian Wilson

Additional options discussed:

Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1917-19) [49:34]
Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex) (1947) [8:09]
Margaret Fingerhut (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London, 7-8 January 1987. DDD.
CHANDOS mp3 CHAN8516 [57:52]

Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Winter Legends for Piano and Orchestra (1929) [43:19]
Saga Fragment for Piano and Small Orchestra (1922, orch.1933) [11:13]
Margaret Fingerhut (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London, 3-4 April 1986. DDD.
CHANDOS mp3 CHAN8484 [54:38]

 


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