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Conductor Vernon Handley was in Studio 7 at BBC Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic and the familiar Manchester team of engineer Stephen Rinker and producers Mike George and Brian Pidgeon for a vintage recording session of his favourite Bax on 19 to 21 April. Thus we had the familiar tone-poems In the Faery Hills, November Woods and The Garden of Fand with the Sinfonietta of 1932.

The whole programme had been rehearsed on the first day, and over the next two days each piece was recorded in a morning or afternoon session. This was a recording of performances, Handley’s method being to record complete takes – three in each case –followed by a small number of patches for any areas of difficulty. I did not hear the rehearsal but it should be said these recording sessions were of astonishing quality, the level of playing, even of first takes, superlative in every department, and Handley brought a lifetime’s experience to readings of remarkable eloquence.

The Sinfonietta (the score is headed ‘Symphonic Fantasy’) was by a long way the least familiar piece on the programme, Handley – ‘Tod’ to all – taking a minute and a half off his world premiere performance in Cardiff back in 1983. This is more elusive music, yet the combination of top-line playing and Tod’s virile view of the score after 22 years will make it essential for all Baxians, standing as it does between the mature world of the late symphonies and the more occasional later scores.

Still on two sticks fifteen months after his Munich taxi accident, Tod was on good form with typical good natured wisecracks and comments. On being asked for a cue he responded ‘I shall lean over you with this big stick’, and after a take of the dancing music in In the Faery Hills commented ‘people who dance it are in different stages of drink’! Asking a player to play up in a melodic passage he urged ‘Enjoy it’ and on receiving an assent added ‘Oh good, enjoy it more!’.

The second day we had the big ones: an absolutely riveting November Woods and vintage The Garden of Fand. Remembering November Woods had been rehearsed two days before, at 10.00am they went on and made a tremendous first take, straight-off – heard in the concert hall it would have had everyone out of their seats. Phenomenal that the orchestra could produce such a performance without warming up. As Tod remarked to the players: ‘That was a magnificent interpretation, I was glad to be present!’ Although it was a broad view of the piece at 20’20", the music seemed as urgent and stormy as ever, the gales in running woodwind semi-quavers wonderfully articulated and phrased. The BBC copy of the score contained pencilled notes of pre-war performances and timings, according to which Sir Adrian gave four performances between February 1931 and February 1951 in the range 16’15" to 18’45", while Sir Henry Wood on 26 January 1939 was timed at 18˝ minutes. All present felt that Handley and the Philharmonic had contributed something special, indeed I am sure that many will find it the high point of a distinguished programme.

The final afternoon brought us to The Garden of Fand which ran a little over 17 minutes (this was another BBC Library score documenting previous performances from which we could see Sir Henry Wood had done it in 15’15" in September 1931, while Dohnanyi, no less, had taken 17˝’ in February 1936, and Warwick Braithwaite and the LSO 18 minutes in 1950). Here Tod and the orchestra unfolded Bax’s vision with masterly flow. Especially interesting was hearing the added emotional impact given to the opening pages when Handley balanced up the basses – the undertow in the orchestral evocation of the ocean – explaining ‘when the basses enter the winds recede to ostinato’. This was a BBC joint session with Chandos, the programme making an essential pendant to Handley’s acclaimed Chandos box set of the symphonies, though an issue date has yet to be announced.



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