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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Winter Legends for piano and orchestra (1929) [39:39]
A Mountain Mood (1915) [4:34]
A Hill Tune (1920) [4:45]
Viola Sonata (1920) [27:00]
Harriet Cohen (piano)
William Primrose (viola)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Clarence Raybould
rec. BBC, London, 26 Nov 1954 (Winter). Columbia DX 1109, No. 3 Studio, Abbey Road, 20 Oct 1942 (solos), 22 July 1937 (Sonata). ADD
original recordings courtesy of the Sir Arnold Bax Trust
DUTTON CDBP 9751 [76:32]


It's a puzzle. Bax was not short of a penny or two. He never had to work at a paying job. He lived in pursuit of his own inclinations. Despite an affluence built on income from the family's ownership of the Macintosh patent and of a large plot on Oxford Street he did not sponsor recordings of his own music. True he died in 1953 only four years after the arrival of the LP but 78s were quite viable. It's not as if he had not written a myriad short works that would have suited the medium. As for the symphonies ... well the only artefact from that era is the multi-disc British Council-sponsored Third Symphony conducted by Barbirolli. What of Beecham in the Fifth, Cameron in the Fourth, Goossens in the Second, Barbirolli in the Sixth and Boult in the Seventh? Perhaps Bax regarded recording as in some way unworthy of his sensuous music. Bax could easily have afforded a series of 78s. If he had this might have provided a treasury for the Bax revivalists who clustered around the vanishingly few recordings in the 1960s and 1970s. Also it would have provided a sound archive against which to compare modern performance practice.

The present Dutton disc includes Winter Legends - a private off-air recording from BBC radio - with three commercial recordings made by Columbia in the 1930s. All are significant because of the prime role played by Harriet Cohen in each piece. For much of her life she effectively controlled performance of Winter Legends and Symphonic Variations.

Winter Legends comes from Bax's Nordic phase along with the symphonies 5 and 6, the three Northern Ballads and The Tale the Pine Trees Knew. It is often said to be akin to the Third Symphony. I cannot hear the kinship. It is a work of monumental statement, imaginative Sibelian resource, poetic inclination balanced with gorgeously rhythmic even violent statements. The Third is more prone to self-absorption and reflection. It has nothing of the war dance adrenaline of Winter Legends (e.g. at 4:47 and 6:26 in the first movement). It is also often grouped with the Symphonic Variations written a decade previously. Once again the relationship is only that both works are major and for piano and orchestra. Winter Legends has about it more of Sibelius's Pohjola's Daughter than the more Scriabinesque rhapsodic Variations.

It is extremely valuable to have the Cohen performance in the Bax catalogue. However while I am sure that Dutton have done their best with the source material it remains muffled. How you long for that gauze to be swept aside. But it is not to be and of course one soon becomes adjusted to the sound.

As a performance it has a peculiar savagery. We have forgotten BBC staff conductor (and occasional composer) Clarence Raybould but he certainly pulls no punches here. Typical is the stonily ice-fragmented blast to the war-dance at 10:28 (I): extremely exciting and handled with more abandon by Cohen than by Fingerhut on Chandos and by John McCabe in either of his fine 1979 (with Leppard) or 1982 (with Handley) broadcasts.

After a reflective poetic central movement, not without its own drama, we come to the finale and epilogue. This begins with a mightily original coup in which piano filigree moving like a quickly glittering wave is counterpointed by hushed strings and a tuba solo. This is an icy effect later used by Vaughan Williams in his Sinfonia Antartica. Raybould keeps the movement on its toes, pressing forward and Cohen goads him even further taking decoration and substantial statement alike at quite a lick.

In general this recording reminds us that Cohen's qualities were by no means in decay in 1954.

A Mountain Mood is impressionistic, musing, rather Greig-like and dreamy. A Hill Tune is also very characteristic Bax with its delicate bone china piano filigree and plangent bardic melody.

Lastly comes the Viola Sonata with Primrose and Tertis. Bax shows a sure hand. Two slow poetic movements of Irish inclination frame a savage little Bartókian central scherzo - perhaps reflecting one of Bax's brutal Celtic short stories. Both Primrose and Cohen are well in tune with the work's elusive moods; more so I think than the Tertis version (on Pearl) even if he does have the advantage of the composer as his pianist.

Too much to hope I suppose but if this CD were to be the first in a series of ex-BBC broadcast Bax revivals let me suggest Harry Newstone's superb early 1960s reading of the Fifth Symphony and Goossens’ of the Second. Both survive in admirable mono sound in the hands of collectors. They tell an impressive and unexpected tale.

This disc represents a valuable assemblage reminding us of Cohen's vivid qualities through Winter Legends. Chances are that Baxians will never hear this recording sounding better so now you can discard your old Nth generation tape copies.

Rob Barnett



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