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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Boult Conducts Bax

Northern Ballad No. 1 (1927) [10’10]. Mediterranean (1920-22) [3’20]. Symphonic Poems: The Garden of Fand (1913-16) [16’37]; Tintagel (1917-19) [13’28]; November Woods (1917) [18’36].
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult.
No rec. info. ADD

Sir Adrian’s radiant belief in Bax’s music shines through every note on this disc. Here are three of Bax’s finest compositions (the symphonic poems) in performances and recordings that can only be described as resplendent, with two interesting shorter pieces as make-weights.

The Garden of Fand is, according to the composer, ‘entirely enveloped in the atmosphere of the calm Atlantic off the Western shores of Ireland and the enchanted islands of which some of the country people still dream’. Certainly the elusive sound-world is entirely evocative of magic and mystery (Bax thought of it as his last overtly Celtic work). It is dedicated to Frederick Stock, who conducted the première in Chicago in October 1920 (the first British account was under the present conductor, Sir Adrian Boult, just over a year later). The ‘Garden of Fand’ of the title is actually the sea and in some ways this is the English La mer. Boult captures the swelling of the sea perfectly – this impression is progressively heightened as the piece progresses.

Tintagel is another sea-scape. Tintagel is a castle-crowned cliff in Cornwall, and the music describes the long stretches of the Atlantic visible from the cliff-top. Spiralling phrases and a seemingly endless flow of easy invention characterise this work. Here, as in Fand, the LPO is on the very top of its form, sensitive to each and every harmonic shift. November Woods is highly evocative music, scored with the hand of a master. It is incredible to think that the present recording was made in 1967, so life-like is the presence of the orchestra. Boult, in all of these scores, paces the whole perfectly.

Two lesser-known pieces begin this disc, Northern Ballad No. 1 and Mediterranean. ‘Gritty’ is not a word I had expected to use in reference to Bax’s music, yet it most accurately describes Northern Ballad No. 1. This is Northern in the sense of the Scottish Highlands, and indeed there is something large and windswept about Bax’s canvas here. The performance is almost preternaturally alert (try the section around 2 minutes in).

Mediterranean is a very short work that began life as a piano solo. It is dedicated to Holst and builds up a predominantly Spanish atmosphere to perfection. Boult’s timing of the Spanish rhythmic inflections is, perhaps surprisingly given his reputation for English music, near-perfect.

From an execution point of view, the Boult recordings on Lyrita seem head and shoulders above the rest, this despite the excellence of some of the other issues.

Colin Clarke


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