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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphonic Variations (1916-18) [45:49]
Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra (1949) [22:22]
Ashley Wass (piano)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Concert Hall, The Lighthouse, Poole, UK, 21-22 May 2008
NAXOS 8.570774 [68:11]
Experience Classicsonline

Bax’s epic Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra equals the Brahms piano concertos in length. Here is a new recording of it that supersedes the earlier Chandos version with Margaret Fingerhut and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson (review). This powerful and poetic reading by Wass and Judd reveals more and assists in a deeper appreciation of this undervalued romantic work.
The Symphonic Variations is divided into two parts with a theme and three variations in the first and three more sections comprising the second. Each variation has a title, some of them enigmatic. Its dedication is to Bax’s lover, the concert pianist, Harriet Cohen. Rosa Newmarch who wrote the programme note for the first performance tried to be helpful – she likened it to “some great epic poem dealing with the adventures of a hero, passing through different experiences ...”
The tumultuous relationship between Harriet and Arnold was spread over many years. It is important to remind ourselves of the times in which this music was composed. Standards and attitudes were very different in those days. People were far more reticent about revealing details about their private lives. It is significant that Arnold and Harriet were discreet about their affair in their books – Farewell My Youth (1943) and A Bundle of Time (1969) respectively. There can be no doubt that Bax was very much in love with Harriet Cohen at the time of this composition - 1916-18. Bax’s Tintagel and November Woods were also composed around this time and both allude to their romance. Harriet was a very beautiful and talented young woman and popular with many other musicians and writers. Her circle included Elgar, Sibelius and Arnold Bennett. The latest, 2007 edition of Lewis Foreman’s first class biography, Bax, A Composer and His Times, (review) is well worth reading. It reveals more than his notes for this CD about the developing romance and about the attitude of Bax’s wife, Elsita, whom he left for Harriet. For a fuller appreciation of Bax’s Symphonic Variations, I recommend reading Foreman, especially the chapter devoted to Cohen (pp. 152-175). But do also track their history through the other pages indexed under Cohen’s name. You will then gain a full appreciation of their stormy relationship.
Rob Barnett’s review of this recording touches on Harriet’s possessive attitude towards this work. This contributed to its long and unjustified neglect so I will not labour that point but proceed to an examination of the music and the Naxos reading.
Segments of the piano part of Bax’s song Parting to words by AE (the Irish poet, George Russell) are quoted in the statement of the theme, at the end of the first variation. They also surface at the beginning of the final variation, ‘Triumph’. This must have had great romantic significance for the couple. The words including “…in the night our cheeks were wet, I could not say with dews or tears…” In fact one must suppose that this work is one long love song.  Just listen to those aching horn calls at 0:44 in the statement of the theme and the tender longing of the piano’s entry immediately afterwards supported by long-held, sighing string chords. There is a broad hint of Rachmaninoff here.  The first variation, marked quite self-explanatory ‘Youth: Allegro: Restless and tumultuous’ interrupts this mood accordingly. At 2:29 the tumult dissipates and the music becomes hesitant and sweetly introspective. We then pass without a break into the lovely second variation marked ‘Nocturne: Slow and serene: Broadly’. Wass and Judd are particularly successful in conveying its sylvan beauty: one can so easily imagine moonlit waters, the song of a nightingale and romantic trysts climaxing in sweet passion. Grieg and Delius come to mind. Soft horns prelude the bridge passage into the turbulent third variation that ends part one. It is marked ‘Strife: Allegro vivace’. This is music in an altogether different mood and one can’t help feeling that the composer was influenced by the tragic events in Ireland and the loss of so many of his friends and colleagues in the Great War. Foreman argues convincingly that there might have been a personal agenda too referring to the domestic conflict between Bax and, Elsita, his wife. Certainly the music around 5:00 suggests this idea; listen to those thrashing chords around 5:40. But the movement ends in heroic assertiveness.
The second part of Bax’s Symphonic Variations begins with the fourth variation - enigmatically marked ‘The Temple: Slow and Solemn’. It consists of alternating sections for solo piano and orchestra alone. What Bax had in mind, here, we will probably never know.  The word ‘Temple’ might be the clue. A temple is somewhere to celebrate things sacred. Certainly the romance between Harriet and Arnold would have been sacred but there might have been other elements in Bax’s life that were sacred to him too? For me, this is the emotional heart of the work. Is this Bax revealing himself in love and yearning, in regret and in guilt? There may also be a hankering for times past. We know that he began to look back on pre-war days with a growing bitter sweet nostalgia about this time – Farewell My Youth indeed! – I believe it’s all here. There is some material of a quasi-oriental nature and one is tempted to think of Cyril Scott here. Again Wass and Judd give a glowing account of this beautiful, intense music. Variation five, in contrast, is marked ‘Play: Scherzo: Allegro vivace – Intermezzo: Enchantment Very Moderate tempo’. This is the longest variation at 10:27 minutes. The Scherzo is light, carefree and exuberant – a young Harriet skipping merrily along at 2:00?  Then we come to the altogether more solemn Intermezzo section and those distant drums which Foreman suggests might be far-off gunfire?  This is a deeply felt reverie, some distance away, one might suspect, from romance.  The final variation ‘Triumph: Moderate tempo – Glowing and passionate’ begins as mentioned above with a literal quotation from the piano part of the song Parting. The variation moves from romance and concludes in exciting and passionate assertion, although the pounding piano chords do seem to have an edge of anxiety that Foreman suggests could be symptomatic of the post-(Great)war period to come.
Bax’s Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra was written in 1949 for Harriet, in penance, one suspects, for his earlier shabby treatment of her when he was obliged to confess, after his wife, Elsita, had died in 1947, and when Harriet insisted that there was now no impediment to them marrying, that he had been involved, for many years, in an extra affair with Mary Gleaves. A terrific row ensued and soon after Harriet suffered the accident to her right wrist apparently caused when she dropped a tray of glasses. This work, except for its central moderato tranquillo movement is quite inferior, I fear to the Symphonic Variations. Yet Wass and Judd serve it well. I will pass over it without further comment except to refer you to my review of the 1999 performance by Margaret Fingerhut included on Chandos CHAN9715. I also commend Lewis Foreman’s remarks at the end of my review.
This CD is certain to figure amongst my choice of recordings for 2009.
Ian Lace

see also review by Rob Barnett



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