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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Spring Fire (1913)
Northern Ballad No. 2 (1934)
Northern Ballad No. 3 (1933)
Mediterranean (1920/22) *
Symphonic Scherzo (1913)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
Rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London; 1986 (Handley); 1986-1987 (Thomson)
Digital remastering 2003
CHANDOS CHAN X10155 [67:11]

Of all Bax’s major works, Spring Fire, regarded by the composer ‘as a kind of freely-worked symphony’, seems to have been the most unlucky. Scheduled for performance in 1914, 1916 and 1919, it was never played in his lifetime and remained unperformed until the composer’s death. Spring Fire was influenced by paganism, fashionable at the time, and, in particular, Swinburne’s poem Atalanta in Calydon that had also inspired Bantock to write an extensive choral setting. Bax uses a large orchestra for his vividly imaginative tone painting. The opening movement, ‘In the Forest Before Dawn’, is a beautiful evocation (cool horns, harp, flute and strings) to realise what Bax described as rain-soaked woodlands, "the branches drip softly and a damp delicate fragrance rises from the earth…"; another gloriously scored impressionistic sound picture ‘Daybreak and Sunrise’ follows without a break and the woodlands begin to stir as the denizens awake from their winter sleep. In ‘Full Day’ the fauns, satyrs and half-human shapes cavorting joyfully through sun-speckled glades. This movement and the final ‘Maenads’ when Pan, Bacchus and their retinues rush noisily through the forest are joyful and hedonistic, and Handley fully realises the fiery youthful ardour of the music unleashing a wild, pointed attack. In contrast, his reading of the fourth movement ‘Woodland Love (Romance)’ with its lovely broad melody is hauntingly languid, sensual and fragrant.

Northern Ballad No. 2 looks northward for its imagery. It is Bax responding to the influence of Sibelius. It is music to set the imagination flying and one is tempted to visualise all manner of frightening myths and legends, malicious shadowy shapes flitting across moonlit skies, and menacing, elemental forces. Handley delivers an earth-shaking reading, violence relieved by some still serenity. The briefer Northern Ballad No. 3, another work never played while Bax was alive, is mysterious and atmospheric too, and it is only briefly in the central section that one might describe the music as remotely ceremonial (in Bryden Thomson’s hands anyway) like a ‘Prelude for a Solemn Occasion’ that is its enigmatic subtitle. Thomson also conducts Bax’s Mediterranean recalling a holiday in Majorca. But this is one of Bax’s least successful works, too derivative, a mishmash of waltz and Chabrier-like Spanish rhythms.

Rounding off the album is Handley’s exuberant reading of Bax’s short Symphonic Scherzo written immediately after Spring Fire and sharing very much the same joyful hedonistic atmosphere.

Chandos’s 2003 digital refurbishment reveals even more fine detail of these richly complex orchestral textures.

Handley and a large RPO deliver the inspired, hedonistic pagan legends-influenced Spring Fire with delicacy and spirited attack.

Ian Lace



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