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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra (1913-14) [46.03]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. 1965, Guildford
CONCERT ARTIST CACD-9021-2 [46.03]

Among Bax's earlier works the Symphonic Variations is a monumental yet enigmatic work. The whole has a mystical and hieratic air. The work always makes me suspect some symbolist schematic like the cathedral structure read into Havergal Brian's Gothic. There is little by way of surface glamour and it is drastically different in mood and imaginative range to Winter Legends, his other major work for piano and orchestra. Winter Legends bids fair to be his greatest work along with the Symphonies 2 and 6, the Piano Quintet and November Woods. Symphonic Variations is restless, rhapsodic. Its triumphs are personal inward statements, its tragedies are ones of some psychological anterior - a dark continent indeed. A couple of years previously Bax had completed a piano-centric work for piano and string quartet. This Piano Quintet, his earliest masterpiece, is a triumph of tragic beauty and tragedy. However the Symphonic Variations take a different track altogether. There is a Medtnerian idyllic reflective quality to the work. It has its demonstrative and victorious moments of course but if Bax had called the work 'Idyllic Variations' no-one would have blinked. Bax let his virtuoso piano tendencies have free rein and these tend towards Balakirev, Grieg and Liszt rather than Brahms or Beethoven. The writing rises to dense complexity of harmony from time to time. The orchestra is given plenty of interest also.

With the degree of elaboration of the piano part it is no wodner that Sorabji wrote of the piece that it was ' without any doubt the finest work for piano and orchestra ever written by an Englishman ... elaborate and intricate in texture both pianistically and orchestrally, it is superbly written for the solo instrument, making full and brilliant use of modern technique.'

The work was his first concerto-style piece. It had its origins in 1916, being completed on Armistice Day 1918. It lasts some three quarters of an hour as premiered by Henry Wood at a Prom concert on 23 November 1920. Harriet Cohen, the soloist, was the dedicatee and owned and controlled the score. The original version was cut extensively and this shortened version (its elisions much lamented by Sorabji) is the one that Cohen played frequently between the wars performing it for the last time at the Queens Hall in 1938.

The original score languished until a performance by Patrick Piggott in 1963 on the BBC Overseas Service. Joyce Hatto and the forces on this recording also revived it at Guildford Civic Hall on 2 May 1970. A few days later this recording was made at EMI's Abbey Road studio.

Joyce Hatto tells of how she first came into contact with the Bax score. It was through a recommendation from Constant Lambert whose Concerto for piano and nine instruments she had learnt for a ballet performance. He recommended the Bax work strongly and referred her to Chappells the publishers. Hatto played the piano part to Mátyás Seiber and as a result of his intervention Chappells managed to locate a full score.

The Fourth Symphony and the Symphonic Vaiations were avaialble on high quality cassette transfers by Mike Skeet's company in the 1980s. The cassette was FED-TC-001. The original Revolution LP was RCF001.

I commented in my review of the Concert Artists' CD of the Fourth Symphony about the great 'what if'. Would a Handley cycle of the seven Bax symphonies have made a real and positive difference to the Bax revival? What would it have been like and how different would it have been from the impending Handley cycle from Chandos? Hearing the volatile, poetic and sturdily heroic-enigmatic pianism of Joyce Hatto in the Variations makes me berate whatever powers that be for obstructing Ms Hatto from recording Winter Legends a work that without any equivocation belongs among the finest works for piano and orchestra of the Twentieth Century. Strange how neither of these two works is called ‘Concerto’. They share the same title as Franck's much played set and retain the reference to 'Symphony' while Winter Legends is subtitled 'Sinfonia Concertante' - again holding tenaciously to the symphonic form.

The detailed notes are by Burnett James with a substantial contribution from Joyce Hatto. I have pillaged these notes shamelessly for the purposes of this review.

This is a mystic-enigmatic work with an idyllic Olympian character given its wayward head by Joyce Hatto and Vernon Handley. The much more recent recording by Margaret Fingerhut is in better sound and has the advantage of an urtext version. However nothing better captures the rapturous pioneering spirit of the Bax revival than Hatto’s version. Such a pity that she did not record all four Bax piano sonatas and is it too late for her to tackle Winter Legends, I wonder.

Rob Barnett

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