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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Youth (Clifford Bax) [3.32]
Parting (George Russell) [5.17]
The Fairies (William Allingham) [5.31]
Lullaby (‘Sheila MacCarthy’ i.e. Arnold Bax)[4.07]
A Milking Sian (Fiona Macleod) [4.12]
Song in the Twilight (Freda Bax) [5.16]
The Enchanted Fiddle (‘Anon’ i.e. Arnold Bax) [2.16]
Far in a Western Brookland (A.E. Housman) [4.15]
To Eire (James H Cousins) [3.37]
A Celtic Song Cycle (Fiona Macleod): Eilidh my Fawn [3.42]; Closing Doors [6.03]; The Dark Eyes to Mine [2.35]; A Celtic Lullaby [7.04]; At the Last [3.44].
The White Peace (Fiona Macleod) [2.26]
When we are lost (‘Dermot O’Brien’ i.e. Arnold Bax) [5.44]
When I was one and twenty (A.E. Housman) [3.06]
Roundel (Chaucer) [3.15]
The Market Girl (Thomas Hardy) [1.58]
Ian Partridge (tenor), Jean Rigby (mezzo), Michael Dussek (piano)
Recorded St George’s, Brandon Hill, London, 21-23 July 2003
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7136 [77.57]

 

Arnold Bax, best known for his symphonies and orchestral works such as Tintagel, was also a fairly prolific song composer, producing one hundred and forty odd songs. Dutton has here produced a selection of some of the best of these, performed by Jean Rigby - on top form - and Ian Partridge, with his utterly distinctive, gorgeously rich and classy tenor, accompanied by a dextrous Michael Dussek.

The disc opens with the deeply moving Youth - one of Bax's greatest songs, which sets a poem by his brother in a brilliant sibling collaboration. The ensuing Parting shows a hallmark of Bax’s early songs in its chromaticism, and The Fairies demonstrates another, namely Bax’s complicated piano accompaniments. Bax has often been criticised for piano parts that are over-elaborate and too virtuosic in relation to the voice line.

Other songs included in the compilation are Lullaby, to Bax’s own words under the pseudonym of Sheila MacCarthy – a delicious song, in which Rigby is delightfully sensitive; Dark Eyes to Mine, a frenzied love song and White Peace, one of Bax’s most famous songs, thanks to the championing of John McCormack. The Enchanted Field, is a work interesting for the fact that it originally set a poem by Yeats until Bax removed the poem and most likely wrote the anonymous replacement himself, fitting the words to the music, which results in a lively piece that works well.

The major work on this disc is the Celtic song cycle, which reflects Bax’s obsession with Ireland and all things Celtic (interestingly enough, visiting the Bax archive in Cork University recently, I came across several books from Bax’s library in Irish-Gaelic, demonstrating the extent of his fascination!). Here, Bax sets the Scottish author and poet William Sharp (under his pseudonym of Fiona Macleod) - the librettist also of Boughton’s The Immortal Hour. It was on hearing this particular work that Parry exclaimed "Young Bax's stuff sounds like a bevy of little devils!" It is here excellently sung by Jean Rigby.

Two other songs on this disc warrant special mention. In setting When I was one and twenty, Bax was faced with stiff competition. There were excellent versions already available by Butterworth (probably the best known of all the settings) and Somervell, and more to come from Gurney the next year, Gibbs three years later and Orr six years later still, amongst others. Written in 1918, Bax’s rendition might appear to be influenced by Butterworth’s of seven years earlier, although it lacks the lilting, serene simplicity evoked by Butterworth’s use of a traditional folk song. Instead, Bax is touched by a strange, agonised sadness, which Partridge communicates superbly. The air of the first stanza could have come from Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge, but the second verse is pervaded by an unusual and beautiful dreamy piano accompaniment comprising falling chromatic phrases. These hold a touch of genius, but are slightly too intrusive and complex to be a complete master-stroke.

The song that probably made the biggest impression on me on this disc is When We Are Lost. A deeply passionate song, it again sets Bax’s own words. Yet it is the performance here that is utterly outstanding ... Listen to the way Partridge sings the penultimate phrase "When we are lost". He lingers, luxuriating seductively in the last letters of the final word, in an outrageously spell-binding, indulgently sensual, and dare I say it, almost orgasmic expression of that short phrase. How one wishes more singers were able to manipulate their words thus!

I can wholly recommend this disc. While not always flawlessly constructed, these songs tend to be at the very least sophisticated and skilfully fashioned works. They are nostalgic, impassioned, sensitive songs, often containing a personal meaning or message, and not only make charming listening, but also give us a further glimpse into this fascinating, and often under-rated, composer. The performances are masterly – intelligent, perceptive and musical. Needless to say, diction is also excellent. Both Rigby and Partridge have an instinctive grasp for this repertoire, and while Rigby is noteworthy, Partridge’s voice is a sheer joy to listen to. An absolute must for any lover of English music or song.

Em Marshall


 



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