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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Cello Concerto (1934) [33:43]
Northern Ballad No.3 (1933) [8:35]
Cortège for Orchestra (date unknown) [5:45]
Mediterranean (1920, orch. 1922) [3:51]
Overture to a Picaresque Comedy (1930) [10:57]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. All Saints Church, Tooting, London, 1986-87.  DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN8494 [63:06]
Experience Classicsonline

Written at the height of his creative powers in the early 1930s, before his position as heir-apparent to Elgar was challenged by Vaughan Williams and Walton, the Bax Cello Concerto may not be a neglected masterpiece, but it is a fine work, well worth hearing in such an excellent performance.
 
Though deleted as a CD with this coupling, the recording remains available as an mp3 download from Chandos at theclassicalshop for £6.  It is also available re-coupled with the Violin Concerto and Morning Song as a mid-price CD, mp3 (£6) and lossless wma (£8) download (CHAN10154X).  That new coupling, with three concertante works together, may be preferred by some, but this original version also remains fully viable.  Whichever format you choose, the mp3 version is offered at the superior bit-rate of 320kbps – very little inferior to CD quality to my elderly ears, though younger listeners may prefer to go for the wma version.  (Be aware, however, that the CD will cost you little, if any, more than this lossless download).
 
The couplings here are also available redistributed across the mid-price reissues in Chandos’s series of Bax’s Orchestral Works – Northern Ballad No.3 and Mediterranean on CHAN10155X with Vernon Handley’s versions of Spring Fire and the Symphonic Scherzo; Cortège and the Picaresque Overture with Nympholept and other works are on CHAN10158X.
 
Like the Violin Concerto, the Cello Concerto is rhapsodic in form; if you like your concertos more tightly structured, you may not warm to it as much as I do.  Its dedicatee, Cassadó, quickly lost interest in it – at least he performed it, which is more than can be said for Heifetz, the dedicatee of the Violin Concerto – and it was left to Beatrice Harrison to champion it.  To the best of my knowledge, this is the only available recording, though, as it is so good, that need be no cause for concern.
 
Raphael Wallfisch had already made an excellent recording of the Moeran Cello Concerto, now re-coupled with an equally fine version of his Violin Concerto (Lydia Mordkovitch) and Whythorne’s Shadow on mid-price CHAN10168X, another highly recommendable Chandos CD or download.  If anything, his performance of the Bax exceeds that earlier achievement and he is well supported by orchestra and conductor alike.  Bryden Thomson’s Bax performances were always sympathetic, if a trifle on the slow side – he liked to give us time to appreciate the beauties of the music.
 
Northern Ballad No.3 was originally published with the enigmatic and inappropriate title Prelude for a Solemn Occasion.  This recording was its first outing without the other two Northern Ballads – there is no valid reason why they should be performed together and it makes a most appropriate follow-up to the Cello Concerto.  If pushed for a preference of coupling, I would plump for the present one, rather than have three concertante works follow hard on each other’s heels.  The re-coupling of the Moeran concertos is a different matter, since those two works are separated by the purely orchestral – and very beautiful – piece Whythorne’s Shadow.
 
Cortège is the weakest work on the recording.  The circumstances of its composition are unknown and it was never performed in Bax’s lifetime.  It is, nevertheless, worth hearing in such a sympathetic performance.  Its cheerful jauntiness belies its title.
 
Mediterranean is a delightful and evocative piece – it deserves to be as well known as Tintagel and The Garden of Fand and is worthy of comparison with Ravel’s evocations of Spain.
 
The Picaresque Overture, once one of Bax’s most popular works, was conceived as a pastiche in the manner of Richard Strauss.  Whilst it is no match for Till Eulenspiegel or Don Juan – Bax did not really have his contemporary Eric Coates’s knack of writing light music – it is a pleasant enough piece and, like everything here, receives a sympathetic performance.
 
Whether played from my mp3 player via the Arcam Solo or burned to CD – my preferred option, if only to find a home for the booklet – the recording sounds first-rate.  That booklet is available as a pdf. document to print out; the notes which it contains, by Lewis Foreman, are, as always, excellent.
 
Having reviewed Bryden Thomson’s versions of the Bax Symphonies and Volumes 3 and 9 of the Orchestral Works in their reissued format, I hadn’t intended to do any more Bax for a while until a reader asked (or challenged?) me if I was going to review the rest.  What started as something of a chore in answer to that reader has led to my pleasure in making the acquaintance of these versions of the Violin and Cello Concertos, which I had not heard for quite some time.  I am grateful for the opportunity.  It would have taken very little persuasion to have made this recording a Bargain of the Month.
 
Brian Wilson
 

 


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