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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
November Woods
(1917) [18:36]
The Happy Forest (1914-21) [10:17]
The Garden of Fand (1913-16) [18:45]
Summer Music (1920, rev. 1932) [9:47]
Tintagel (1917-19) [15:03]
Ulster Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, 10-11 April 1983 (Tintagel) and 28-29 June 1982 (other works). DDD.
CHANDOS DOWNLOAD (CHAN10156X) [72:49]
Experience Classicsonline


Having, in my review of Volume 9 of this series, recommended this Chandos recording as the ideal starting point for someone wishing to get to know Bax, I was surprised that I was unable to find any indication that it has ever been reviewed on MusicWeb. I tried both search engines in vain, so it behoves me to expand on that brief recommendation.
 
Reissued in 2003, the recording is available as a CD, from the Chandos website as a 320kbps mp3 download at £6 or as a lossless download for £8. The mp3 version is also available from theclassicalshop.net for £4.99. As with Volume 9, The Truth about the Russian Dancers and From Dusk Till Dawn (CHAN10457X), I was unable to detect any problems with the mp3 sound, though younger and sharper ears may prefer the lossless version, especially as some of the textures in The Garden of Fand are fairly dense. The recording copes very well with both these denser textures and the leaner scoring of The Happy Forest.
 
As with Volume 9, the direction is in the capable hands of Bryden Thomson, this time with the Ulster Orchestra, whose playing is first class throughout. Chandos later recorded two of these works, November Woods and The Garden of Fand with the BBC Phiharmonic under Vernon Handley, coupled with In the Faery Hills and the Sinfonietta, another recording which has received appreciative reviews (CHAN10362 – see LF’s account of the recording sessions). I first got to know November Woods from Boult’s Lyrita LP recording with the LPO, but I can hardly imagine that Handley’s BBC performances outshine Thomson’s, who has the price advantage and a more attractive programme for those wishing to get to know Bax’s music.
 
November Woods and The Happy Forest demonstrate Bax’s talent for depicting aspects and moods of nature. If the former contains some darker moments, the latter is a perfect foil. The trilogy of nature pieces is completed by Summer Music, a piece aptly described in the notes as rather Delius-like in places. These are all attractive works, but it is for the other two pieces that I chiefly recommend the recording to the Baxian beginner.
 
The Garden of Fand and Tintagel both draw on Bax’s love of Celtic mythology, though it is perfectly possible to enjoy both without any consideration of that influence – they are, indeed, probably Bax’s best-known works and justifiably so. Like the earlier In the Faery Hills (1909) they are, to quote the Oxford Companion to Music, imbued with the spirit of Celtic legend; though born in London, Bax’s reading of W B Yeats had inspired him to think of himself as an honorary Irishman – he even adopted the Irish pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne and settled in Ireland.
 
Bax described The Garden of Fand as “the last of my Irish music”. In Celtic legend, as described in The Sickbed of Cuchulain, the Garden of Fand was a paradise land which sank beneath the sea. If Summer Music is sometimes reminiscent of Delius, Fand shows clearly the influence of Debussy but it is no slavish imitation. As Brahms said of his First Symphony, any donkey could see that it was influenced by Beethoven; Bax is as much his own man in Fand as Brahms was in that symphony – and glorious music it is, too.
 
Tintagel contrives to describe both a place and a mood – the ‘real’ Tintagel on the Cornish cliffs and the place steeped in Arthurian myth. Here it was, according to Malory and his sources that Merlin disguised King Uther Pendragon as the Duke of Cornwall so that he might sleep with the Duke’s wife Igrayne and beget the future King Arthur upon her after the Duke had died in an attempt to attack Uther’s camp. “So after the deth of the duke, Kyng Uther lay with Igrayne more than thre hours after his deth, and begat on her that nyght Arthur.”
 
But there are also echoes of another adulterous relationship associated with Arthurian legend and with Cornwall, that of Tristan and Isolde, and inevitably of Wagner’s opera: Bax’s own programme notes refer to “the many tragic tales of King Arthur and King Mark [the husband of Isolde] and others among the men and women of their time” and specifically refers to “one of the subjects of the first Act of Tristan and Isolde (whose fate was intimately connected with Tintagel).” Yet this is not a question of identifying a simple leitmotif: the great climax of the work contrives simultaneously to be connected with the suffering of Tristan and the heaving of the waves at the foot of the cliff of Tintagel Castle.
 
The excellent notes, with their evocative cover design, help set the music in context. For purchasers of the mp3 and lossless versions these notes are easily downloaded in pdf format from the Chandos website.
 
If there is room for only one Bax recording in your collection, this should be it. I hope that it may inspire exploration of his symphonies, either from Chandos with Vernon Handley, a complete set on 5 CDs, or from Naxos, whose recordings under David Lloyd-Jones are almost their equal. Each of the Naxos recordings is coupled with one or more tone poems – unfortunately that means duplicating all the works on this Chandos recording except November Woods.
 
I would have been strongly tempted to nominate this Bargain of the Month if I hadn’t just awarded that accolade to the Chandos download of Rubbra’s Inscape and Four Mediæval Lyrics (CHAN9847 - see review). The strongest possible recommendation lies in the fact that I purchased this recording, which now replaces older versions of these works in my collection as my recording of choice for each of them.
 
Brian Wilson
 


 


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