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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953): In Memoriam/Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra, The Bard of the DimbovitzaJean Rigby (soprano); Margaret Fingerhut (piano) BBC Philharmonic conducted by Vernon Handley Chandos CHAN 9715 [76:40]



These are all premiere recordings and most welcome additions to the Bax discography. How splendid the orchestral version of In Memoriam sounds; Vernon Handley and the BBC Philharmonic give a really spine-tingling performance. Dating from 1916, In Memoriam commemorates Pádraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Dublin uprising, executed soon after the rebellion was quashed. Bax was clearly greatly moved when writing this music it conveys all the anguish he felt at learning about all the suffering in his beloved Ireland and of the veneration he felt for Pearse. Readers of Bax's Farewell, My Youth may recall how Bax remembered meeting the martyred hero: "Scarcely had Pearse shaken hands shyly than he sat down by the fire and stared into the blaze as though absorbed in a private dream but his eyes were lit with the unwavering flame of the fanatic. Somebody said, 'Pearse wants to die for Ireland you know.' Indeed he did not have much longer to wait before his desire was granted. As he was leaving he said to his host, 'I think your friend Arnold Bax may be one of us. I should like to see more of him.'...I could not forget the impression that strange death-aspiring dreamer [ Pearse] made upon me when on Easter Tuesday 1916 I read, by Windermere's shore, of that wild, scatter-brained but burningly idealist adventure in Dublin the day before. I murmured to myself, 'I know that Pearse is in this'..." Bax had fallen deeply in love with all things Irish and the English censor later declared his verses, written under his pseudonym, Dermot O'Byrne, to be subversive.

In Memoriam includes the theme that Bax later used for Mr Brownlow in his score for the film Oliver Twist but here it is treated with that extra passion and deeper conviction appropriate to Pearse. In Memoriam is part-elegy, part-funeral march, and partly a furious remonstration against a cruelly suppressed bid for Irish independence. (Perhaps Bax, in more reflective and prudent mood, put it aside for it was never heard and indeed, until recently it was thought that Bax had never orchestrated it). Marching rhythms with insistent side drum and bugle calls contrast with music that suggests Irish Elysian Fields fit for heroes. A wonderful musical experience.

The Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra was written at Storrington in 1948 for Harriet Cohen who had injured her right hand. Lewis Foreman, writing in his book, Bax, A Composer and his Times regarded this work as "watery" and "...[it] is not a successful work, and unfortunately for Bax's reputation had the misfortune of being widely played for several years. The critical sneers it received, were by implication, extended to the rest of his music... Nevertheless, Left Hand Concertante, patently Bax's worst extended work was widely heard. The first movement is laboured although there are some attractive ideas. The slow movement is probably the best; beautiful if limited...But the theme of the finale, a rondo, is tawdry. His heart was not in the work. He wrote to the Dutch cellist-composer Henri van Marken during its composition: 'I find it terribly difficult to think of anything effective for the one hand... Except in the finale, Bax seldom brings the soloist away from the lower half of the keyboard, and so the left-hand limitation is thus rather more pronounced than it might have been. Ravel in his left-hand concerto, which Harriet never played, allowed his soloist a much wider compass..."

In an interview with Colin Anderson reproduced in this CD's booklet, Vernon Handley comments: "Margaret [Fingerhut] showed immediately that it's not directionless - It's very clean and clear. I admire in Bax that he doesn't mind writing something simple. By terming it 'Concertante' he's saying that the orchestral role is as important as the soloist's...He's written - better than Britten (Diversions) and as well as Ravel - something that uses the left-hand colour and register extremely well. The Concertante occupies a lighter emotional world but he touches moments of depth as he does in every work...."

So, the individual listener must decide. For myself, I found the slow movement to be the most appealing and in the sensitive hands of Fingerhut and Handley, often beautiful. The opening movement has many Baxian characteristics, including northern-mythological-type figures but at some points I felt these were caricatured and I could not dismiss from my mind's eye a picture of North American Indians that the music seemed to create - maybe it was "oddities" like these that attracted such derision?. The rhythmically exhilarating final Rondo is an odd mix of the sturdy and heroic with some grotesque and quirky figures plus some intriguing Brahmsian influences. Clearly Fingerhut and Handley have brought out the very best in this oddity amongst Bax's major works.

The Bard of the Dimbovitza was composed in 1914 and it clearly shows the influence of the Russian composers that so impressed Bax in his earlier years, as well as the French impressionists. The Bard of the Dimbovitza comprises Romanian Folk Verses collected from the peasants by Héléne Vacaresco and translated by Carmen Sylva (the nom de plume of Queen Elizabeth of Romania who was probably was more involved in their composition than she admitted) and Alma Strettel. Published in London in 1892, they became as popular as Omar Khayyam although they bore as much direct relevance to Romanian folk-poetry as Fitzgerald's verse had to Persian verse. Bax eschews any local Romanian colour. Most of the poems in The Bard of the Dimbovitza are designated as 'Luteplayer songs' or 'Spinning songs'. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Sheherazade is immediately apparent in the beginning of the opening "Gypsy Song"; and there are echoes of Tchaikovsky later ('There where on Sundays...'). It is dreamy, sultry and sensual with Bax richly evoking lines like: 'The brook ripples by so clearly there...' The second song, the ghostly and mysterious "The Well of Tears" again is sumptuous but chilling too as the singer sees spectres at the bottom of a well full of tears. "Misconception" appears to be about lovers' embarrassed silences whereas simple confessions of love would have eased everything and saved the sadness that Bax later implies. This is a more fragile creation and nearer to the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy. In the more light-hearted "My Girdle I Hung on a Tree-top Tall", with Bax's cheeky cuckoo figures, the singer, a clearly head-strong and independent young woman scorns the attentions of a young man. Here Rigby has to sing a dialogue between swain and maid. The latter's arrogant scorn is well represented but the former's masculine ardour could have been more strongly communicated. The final song, "The daughter" (clearly from Bax's treatment, a spinning song) is, again, another dialogue piece, this time between a young girl, poetic, naive and eager for love and her mother disillusioned and laconic. Rigby, in the main, sings sensitively and expressively with warmth and a fine sense of the lines of the songs and Handley provides rich, evocative support. This album is a must for all Bax enthusiasts


Ian Lace


When I wrote my book on Bax I had only heard one performance of the Left Hand Concertante, that given by Douglas Fox at Oxford on a very snowy night in 1969. Later, between the two editions of my book, I encountered Harriet Cohen's French Radio performance which, frankly, was no better. In both the orchestra could not really cope. So it was wonderful to hear it played by a top line orchestra, with Margaret Fingerhut's crisp yet poetic performance of the solo part. For me it was a revelation.

When I suggested that its frequent performance during Bax's last years did his reputation a disservice, I meant that by being represented by an "easy" and comparatively lightweight piece, the virile, epic, romantic Bax was forgotten. The same was true when the First, Second and Sixth Symphonies were little heard, and Bax tended to be represented by numbers Four and Seven. Lovely works, but lacking the grit of the ones that were then neglected, before even they fell out of performance altogether. In fact, now hearing the Concertante so beautifully presented, one becomes aware of the music's strengths. I must say I do not always care for Bax's late music when he is using those "Indians coming down the Hudson" rhythms, as early on in the first movement. But the second subject of the first movement, particularly at its reprise, is so close to the poetic moments of the earlier epic piano concerto Winter Legends, exploring that work's most magical vein in two wonderful passages, that we realise that Bax is not entirely divorced from his pre-war romanticism. Then the slow movement, which on its own is revealed as a lovely encore, well able to replace the delightful "Morning Song" on any recorded music programmes. While the whole work is not on the scale, emotional or musical, of the Symphonic Variations or Winter Legends, nor is it a work on which a great reputation could solely rest, it is nevertheless a worthwhile one, and I hope it will may be taken up again from time to time.

Mentioning Winter Legends, it is interesting that this programme includes three works where Bax alludes to himself in all three; looking back to Winter Legends in the Left Hand Concertante and to Into the Twilight in the second song of The Bard of the Dimbovitza; while in In Memoriam he looks forward to the exultant climactic moment of the slow movement of the Second Symphony, in a remarkable thematic link which must set thinking all who have wondered at the tragic Second Symphony's motivation. I find that all such resonances and allusions add to the enjoyment and understanding of this remarkable composer. While I cannot review this record as I devised the programme and, on behalf of the Sir Arnold Bax Trust, promoted the performance and recording, I must say that to my mind it has turned out remarkably well and illuminates so many aspects of Bax's life and music; while each piece is one that one will surely return to again and again on this CD. A truly heartfelt "thank you" is due to the artists involved for making such a success of the scheme.


Ian Lace

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