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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Overture, Elegy and Rondo (1927) [23.44]
Sinfonietta (1932) [22.00]
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
rec. Concert Hall, Slovak Philharmonic, Bratislava, 8-12 June 1987
NAXOS 8.555109 [45.44]

In its short playing time this issue betrays LP origins. It was issued four years after the BBC's sumptuous centenary celebrations in 1983. Indeed the Sinfonietta was included in those celebrations in a studio broadcast conducted by the BBC Welsh Symphony orchestra/Vernon Handley on 23 December 1983.

The present disc was first issued at full price on Marco Polo 8.223102. Resplendent in new livery (James Hay's cover painting) and strengthened by Lewis Foreman's superb notes it now moves into bargain price alongside the Lloyd Jones-conducted symphonies. It forms a most apt appendix to the symphonies. Both works are little symphonies and neither are completely light-hearted or trivial. Bax did write works with a Coatesian levity (the unrecorded Overture Work-In-Progress) but when the triptychal work moves away from vintage Bax it slips into the pastiche Strauss of the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy and the finale of the Violin Concerto. The works have many Bax fingerprints and show imaginative mastery time after time. However the themes remain obstinately unmemorable - often magically orchestrated and placed but refusing to hook themselves into the memory. The recording quality is much better than I had remembered and the evidence of its excellence can be heard at the start of the Overture and the Rondo which display depth and impact. You should also hear the resinous chamber qualities at 3.32 during the first episode in the Sinfonietta. Bax's tendency to ruminate and meander fatally saps the momentum in the centre of the Rondo and in the glutinous Elegy. Lewis Foreman's notes speak of a neo-classical accent to the Overture but it does not register with me nor for that matter does it in another work reputed to be affected in this way - Moeran's Sinfonietta.

By the way the Bax style adopted here is not exotic-impressionist (Spring Fire) neither is it brutal and barbaric (First Symphony). This is the Bax of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies - a sort of transition between the rumbustious nature-painting of the Fourth and the Nordic genius of Winter Legends and the Fifth Symphony. The Sinfonietta is in three sections continuously played. The first mixes Bax's hallmark liturgical mood with the stertorous savagery typical of his Nordic chapter. Nice touches heard here and there including the stalking tic-toc of the bassoon at 1.32 in the Tempo Primo (tr.5).

Not the place to start your Bax exploration but those who have caught the bug will find much to please them in these two quasi-symphonic works. They are crackingly performed (allowing for the odd queasy moment) and well recorded.

Rob Barnett



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