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Arnold BAX

Violin Concerto; A Legend; Romantic Overture; Golden Eagle.
Lydia Mordkovitch (violin)
London Philharmonic, Bryden Thomson
with Richard Nunn (piano) in final two items.
Chandos CHAN 9003. (DDD) (75.27)
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I am reviewing this CD as I have read a few existing reviews which are, in my opinion, somewhat unfair.

One reviewer stated that Lydia Mordkovitch's performance was too forceful which is such an absurd remark that someone has to counter it. Her playing is always in control and impeccably realised. Another reviewer said that her performance was "too Russian" which is another absurd remark.

Bax has Celtic and Russian elements in much of his music. I suppose the Irish connection is the most obvious but there were times in his life when he was fascinated by Russia. He wrote Two Russian Tone Poems for Piano in 1911 and In a Vodka Shop in 1915 and the ballet The Truth about Russian Dancers of 1920.

Incidentally, what is the truth about Russian dancers?

I remember discussing the Violin Concerto with Bryden Thomson who brought out in conversation the Irish and Russian elements inherent in the score.

The Concerto is curious in form. Both the opening and final movements are each in three parts which can be a little disconcerting. The last movement is weak but there is much to admire in the opening two movements.

There is a rugged start to the work which shows Jack Thomson's unsurpassed gift for clarity and texture. The violinist enters and her tone throughout is matchless. Her intonation is secure and she is not an extremist, self-indulgent or cranky in any of her playing. Her double-stopping is so smooth that you may not realise that it is on two strings. Her energetic playing is so well controlled but, for all that, it does not lose any brilliance. She is a musician not a show-off! Jack's accompaniment is flawless, as usual. What an amazing conductor he was. I have never heard him give a bad performance.

The opening movement is in three parts namely Overture, Ballad and Scherzo. The use of the word overture in a concerto is unheard of but, nevertheless, what is in a name? The ballad has a simply gorgeous tune which is almost identical to a Russian folk song called Dolina. So to that reviewer who complained that the work was too Russian I would recommend that he does his research first! I have to say that lovely as this melody is, it is repeated too often. But the real joy is the effortless soloist who avoids sentimentality and wallowing and provides us with a rich velvet tone which is very romantic without being excessive. This memorable theme also hints at Celtic twilight and had not Lydia and Jack been at the helm it could have degenerated into something cheap and banal. The Irishness is most notable in the scherzo section and is very delightful. For a lot of the time the orchestration is delicate but, please note, never weak. Modest orchestration does not signify weakness. Look at Beethoven's Seventh, for example.

I was troubled by Lewis Foreman's notes that the slow movement of the Bax alludes to the Elgar Violin Concerto. That put me off at once. I remember William Walton telling us once that someone had told him that a passage in his First Symphony sounded like Elgar and so he changed it before handing it over to his publishers. "Who the hell wants to sound like Elgar?" he said quite angrily. Indeed. He continued," I made that mistake once with Orb and Sceptre. I won't do it again." Bax's slow movement seems to continue in the mood of the central section of the first movement. It is now slightly self-indulgent but, thankfully, not Elgarian. The security of the violin's tessituras is spellbinding and the controlled passion is magnificently judged. When the orchestra bursts with passion it is a tremendous moment.

The final ehas its share of high-spirits and humour but it has a section in a slow waltz tempo which is in danger of irredeemable degeneration into something like Johann Strauss. The final section has some choice moments but that waltz returns and the music has now become cheap and somewhat vulgar. It has lost direction. But listen to the sheer artistry of the musicians and forget the poor quality of this final, movement. Bax wrote this concerto in 1937 - 8 intending it for Heifetz to play who, apparently did not like it. An American friend of mine who was close to Heifetz told me that it was the last movement that was not liked.

I can understand that!

A Legend is the last of Bax's 22 symphonic poems and was written in 1943. It seems to recall his earlier works in this genre the trumpets and the wild sea of Tintagel (do buy Thomson's version for the sheer controlled excitement) and the forest glades of November Woods  (Boult is recommended) and The Tale the Pine Trees Knew.

Incidentally, what did they know?

The orchestral colour is beautifully captured. There is a hint of a brass band at one moment. To me the music evokes Britain between the two World Wars.. that sense of innocence and decency, that companionship, that value of country life and open air before the advent of the motorways. Ugh!

Many consider the music to be, in effect, his Northern Ballad no.4. That the work is dedicated to Julian Herbage, who also lived in Sussex at the time, may partly support my view. The work is mainly peaceful but ends with a triumphant march perhaps suggesting a victory parade. The piece dates from 1943. Thomson's reading is very fine. When the music gets bogged down, he can still bring out colour and detail to keep us interested.

It is a puzzle to me why composers dedicate works to other composers. What happens if they don't like it, as the famous example of Britten's reaction to Shostakovich's kind dedication? The Romantic Overture was dedicated to Delius after Bax visited him in 1926. It is scored for a small orchestra and, again, I am intrigued by the choice of title. Romantic meaning of the imagination, I can understand... but overture? Prelude for chamber orchestra may have been better. The music is not inspiring apart from a few shafts of sunlight. It is just a slab of mood music.

Like Schumann, Clifford Bax had a fascination with Mary, Queen of Scots and he wrote a drama about her called The Golden Eagle which had a few performances in London in 1945. Clifford asked his brother, Arnold, to write some music for the production and ten were written. The orchestral ones are on this CD. He captures the period well without imitation... although do you sense Greensleeves at one point? The piano part, which may seems at odds with the period, works well.

The recording and performances are superlative. The quality of music varies. Lydia Mordkovitch is a perfectionist and we can but love her the more for it.

David Wright



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