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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
In the Faery Hills (1909, revised 1921) [15:08]
November Woods (1917) [20:30]
The Garden of Fand (1913, orchestrated 1916) [17:28]
Sinfonietta - 'Symphonic Fantasy'(1932) [22:06]
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 20-21 April
meet the demands of Bax's saturated colours with a recording
that stands in the vivid Decca tradition.
have here is two of the classic tone poems: Fand and November
Woods with the early and fantastic In the Faery Hills.
Coupled this with the mixed triumph and failure of the much
later Sinfonietta. The empty seat at the table is Tintagel.
It's not here because this disc is surely intended to work
as a supplement to the Handley-Chandos four
disc Bax symphony set made with the same forces. That set
included Tintagel and the Rogues Comedy Overture as
fillers so there was no point in repeating Tintagel.
The Sinfonietta has had only one previous recording
which was not well received. This is the work's second chance.
As for the other overtures, Lyrita will very soon issue Handley's
long shelved RPO recordings of the Overture: Work-In-Progress, Overture
to Adventure and the Rogues Comedy Overture alongside Irish
Landscape and crucially Norman Del Mar's classic and
irreplaceable recording of the Sixth Symphony. This will
be on SRCD296. The Overture to Adventure was crackingly
done by Douglas Bostock - a much later Boult pupil - on ClassicO but in
rather bass-starved and treble-shrill sound.
collection is generously proportioned and handsomely offered
up. The performances are magical and includes in particular
a simply splendid version of In the Faery Hills. I
recall hearing a superb performance of this work conducted
by Ashley Lawrence circa 1979 on BBC Radio 3. This is
fully the equal of that broadcast although the starry magic
of the piece is outpointed by Lawrence in one aspect. The
BBC engineers accorded some agreeably unnatural spotlighting
to the final chattering solo viola. The instrument is just
that shade more discreet in the Handley and not to its advantage.
one of Bax's ten finest scores - a touchstone. Early on
the score needs more urgent propulsion that Handley imparts
here. However, from the moment when the gale raises its
head (2:37) its potency ‘plies the saplings double’ - even
uproots them. The power is unmistakable and Handley conveys
a granitic grittiness from 3:38 onwards. Bass drum and
deep brass register sinister agencies at murderous play
in this score. Handley was a Boult pupil and he is
up against Boult's own Lyrita
recording from 1967-8. The Lyrita sports red-blooded
Decca engineering. The more naturalistic approach adopted
by Chandos in Manchester does not have quite the same impact.
Still it's a sweeping and very grand reading although not
displacing Boult’s propulsive urgency.
Garden of Fand Handley's principal competitor is Barbirolli
The Boult Fand on Lyrita is nowhere near as good
as Boult's 1960s November Woods. The Barbirolli
is from the late 1950s and its maximum impact spotlighting
is contrived - glorious but contrived. This Chandos version
treads the gorgeous line between true concert hall perspective
and giving pleasing prominence to parts of the orchestral
weave. Handley knows this fine score so very well. I have
a tape of his conducting of the NCOS orchestra in
the 1980s and I knew that his Fand would be extraordinary.
So it is.
The Sinfonietta is
from 1932 when Bax was at his peak. Even so it has always
been a Cinderella work. Handley knows the piece, having conducted
it in 1983 with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra. That
was as part of the BBC’s handsome Bax centenary celebrations.
The music communicates much more strongly here and with greater
definition of character than in the Marco Polo version -
though that is by no means poor. The language is coloured
by the fact that Bax had in the 1930s ‘gone Northern’. There
are some strongly Sibelian moments as in the first movement
chatter at 4:10. The kinship is with Bax’s three Northern
Ballads and especially with the first two - the second being
intensely dark and minatory. The finale has the necessary
gaudy barbarism to bring the house down in a sparking shatter
of Brangwyn scintillation.
did with the symphonies so Chandos now do with the tone poems.
The Bryden Thomson recordings made by Chandos in the 1980s
and early 1990s are still in their MP3 catalogue. They run
head-to-head with Handley but never in identical couplings.
Handley is out-pointed by Thomson only in the Fourth Symphony
- all the planets must have been in the right conjunction
that day in Belfast for such a magnificent recording and
an essential acquisition for all Baxians. It also paves the
way for the next Handley/BBCPO release which will include
the three Northern Ballads in sequence as well as
some other shorter works including Red Autumn. The
latter work has been freshly orchestrated by that fine and
insightful Baxian, Graham Parlett who contributed so generously
to my own early exploration of the Bax catalogue in the early
see also review by Graham
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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