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This item is beleived to be a genuine Hatto recording. Nevertheless we have suspended all Concert Artist sales for the moment.

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]

At forty-six minutes Bax’s Symphonic Variations runs for about the same time as each of Brahms’ piano concertos and the orchestral writing and the solo part are conceived on an equally large scale. The first of the two movements is made up of the theme and three variations, played continuously. Three further variations comprise the second movement, as well as a passage that Bax calls an Intermezzo. "Variations", then, is perhaps not the best word when the theme is subjected to such lengthy treatment. Each section is in effect a substantial development of a different aspect of the theme. However we choose to think of it, the structure of the work is successful – if rather quirky – and the return of the theme at the end and the subsequent coda are totally convincing and satisfying.

Bax gives titles to each of the variations, and though they do give clues to the nature of the music they are nonetheless ambiguous. The third variation is called Strife, understandable given the date of composition, but quite what is being referred to in the fourth variation, The Temple, is anyone’s guess. Burnett James, in the comprehensive booklet notes, is surely right to evoke Debussy here, as the music inhabits a world akin to the more austere of that composer’s Preludes, Danseuses de Delphes, for example, or Canope. Other composers who come to mind in this music are Rachmaninov, particularly near the beginning of the work, and even Prokofiev in some of the more rapid passages, though listeners familiar with Bax will recognise his own, very personal style, throughout the work.

The piano part is immense and the instrument rarely silent. There is little feeling of conflict or competition between the solo instrument and the orchestra, though to think of the work as a concertante piece for piano and orchestra will not do either, as this rather belittles the huge demands made on the soloist. The work was written for and dedicated to Harriet Cohen, and she was for many years the only pianist to play it. The piano writing seems more suited to the composer himself, however, and a fair bit of rewriting took place to accommodate her rather small hands. In addition, a version of the work appeared in which the tumultuous first variation, Youth, was omitted.

The work has had a rather chequered performance history, which is admirably outlined in the booklet notes. The present recording from 1970 followed a performance by the same forces in Guildford which seems to have been the first performance of the complete work for fifty years and which, by all accounts, was ecstatically received by the audience. The recording has appeared before, and it is satisfying to see it reissued now as part of Concert Artist’s ongoing series of Joyce Hatto performances. It is a reading of the utmost integrity and conviction by a pianist at the height of her powers, totally at ease before the immense technical demands of the work. We should not be surprised if there is a certain authority about this performance as Joyce Hatto studied the work with the composer and indeed played it with him on two pianos. There is a feeling of discovery about her reading, an urgent need to communicate which is very compelling, and the performance is highly integrated, making light of its apparently sprawling structure and leading us on inexorably to the close. In this she is supported by Vernon Handley, a conductor whose sympathy with English music, and Bax in particular, needs no advocacy from me. Careful listening reveals a certain thinness in the strings and the brass playing lacks refinement at times, but the playing is excellent overall, and in any case any shortcomings are of no importance – one forgets them – before playing of such spontaneous intensity.

There is as far as I know only one other recording of this work, set down by Chandos in 1987. The sound is typical of the company, and there is no denying the superiority of the orchestral playing from the London Philharmonic under that excellent conductor Bryden Thomson. Lewis Foreman, in his notes, explains that the score and parts were extensively checked and corrected for this recording, and it is true that the work was subject to so much tinkering that a definitive edition of the text would certainly be welcome. Listeners without a score will not notice much difference, however, though there are certainly moments where parts of the keyboard figuration clearly to be heard in 1970 are absent in 1987. If this were the only performance available we would, I think, be more than happy with it, but Margaret Fingerhut’s playing, set beside Joyce Hatto’s, frequently lacks drive and passion. The earlier team is the better guide by far through these red-blooded pages and their recording is highly recommended.

William Hedley

See also review by Rob Barnett

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