In one fell swoop Dutton restore the classic Barbirolli version of Bax 3
to the catalogue and usher in the first commercial release of Eda Kersey's
traversal of the Violin Concerto. Both are leading documents of their time
and have much to tell us about Bax and performance practice.
The Concerto was written for Heifetz but disdained by him because,
as Lewis Foreman tells us in his habitually exemplary liner notes, the work
was insufficiently challenging. Truth to tell it is an enigmatic work if
your reference points are the symphonies. It makes more sense if you group
it with things like Maytime in Sussex and the overture Work in
Progress. Even then it does not quite fit because this is a work with
some fire in its veins. The composer likened its style to Raff but for me
it is a dashing and poetic blend of Russian romance (vintage Tchaikovsky
and Rimsky in Sheherazade mode - try 09.03 in the first movement)
and Straussian panache of a type Bax also used in the Overture to a Picaresque
There is only one other recording - a perfectly good and enjoyable version
on Chandos. Lydia Mordkovich (the Chandos soloist and a most welcome and
imaginative regular on that label) does not imbue the work with quite the
ferocity which Eda Kersey finds. The last time I heard anything approaching
this was Dennis Simons version, impetuous and poetic, broadcast by
BBC Radio 3 circa 1979 in which the BBC Northern Symphony were conducted
by that very fine Baxian, Raymond Leppard (still Indianapolis-based?). Now
that is one broadcast that cries out for commercial release. Ferocity in
Bax can be glimpsed in many of the older school conductors' efforts as in
the case of Stanford Robinson's Bax 5 and Eugene Goossens' Bax 2 - both BBC
tapes from the 1950s and early 1960s. Goossens' devastatingly gripping
Tintagel with the New SO on 1930s 78s is also an object lesson in
what Bax scores can gain from keeping things moving forward.
Kersey was to die in 1944 at the age of only 40. How sad a loss! It would
have been wonderful if her version of the Arthur Benjamin Romantic
Fantasy premiere had been similarly recorded by the BBC. The Fantasy
was dedicated to Bax and the two corresponded regularly.
The recording of the concerto is in muscular mono prone to only one blemish:
when the orchestra rises above ff on emphatic music the treble stratum
succumbs to a shredded or shattery quality likely to be noticeable only if
listening on headphones. Otherwise the audio image is stable and without
fault though unsubtle by comparison with the Symphony's commercial recording.
The Barbirolli Bax 3 is likely to be an old friend to many Baxians.
First issued in 1944 under the auspices of the British Council it was finally
issued on LP by EMI in the 1980s. In the 1990s it reappeared (though with
a very short lease) in 1992 on EMI CDH 7 63910 2 (ADD) on the Great Recordings
of the Century series. When the original 78s had been deleted their place
was been filled (after a fashion and after years of silence) by Edward Downes'
LSO recording on an RCA LP later reissued on the Gold Label series in circa
1977 (the year of the Silver Jubilee in the UK).
For this Baxian, the Third Symphony counts as one of the most static of the
seven - a natural partner to the Seventh. Its rhapsodic Russophile sympathies
are much in evidence with hints throughout of Rimsky's Antar and
Russian Easter Festival and of Stravinsky's Firebird. I would
tend to bracket it with his own Spring Fire, Bantock's Pagan Symphony
and Vaughan Williams' Pastoral rather than with the dynamic turbulent
front-runners of the 1930s such as the Moeran, Walton 1, VW4 and his own
5 and 6.
Barbirolli invests the Symphony with great feeling - molto passione.
Every detail is attended to with great and amorous care. Has the anvil
blow at the crown of the first movement resounded as satisfyingly in any
other recording - I think not?
The dedicatee of the Symphony (Sir Henry Wood) can be heard in a tantalising
fragment of a Queen's Hall rehearsal of the Third on a Symposium CD. His
illness since the late 1930s (he was to die during the Summer of 1944) robbed
us of a Wood-conducted Bax 3. It would not at all surprise me to discover
that EMI had approached Wood before Barbirolli who had, comparatively recently,
returned to war-scarred Britain from his spell with the New York Philharmonic
The symphony's recording sessions were presided over by Walter Legge and
the intrinsic sound captured is much better rendered on the Dutton than on
the EMI. From this point of view Dutton Laboratories have done a better transfer
and remastering job than Peter Bown and John Holland for EMI Classics
almost a decade ago. Taking one example: the bed of 78 hiss and burble,
faithfully present in the middle background in the EMI, has been lowered
substantially. Miraculously cyclical disc rotation blemishes have been neatly
elided. Compare from 08.00 to 09.00 in the first movement in the EMI as against
the Dutton. There is evidence here that the Dutton is the most solicitous
and beguiling transfer this recording has had. It makes you wonder what the
next generation of processing a decade down the road will have achieved.
The Dutton is a de rigueur addition for all Baxians and an antidote
to the sleepy sloppy school of Baxian interpretation.
See Arnold Bax Website on MusicWeb