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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Concertino for piano and orchestra (1939) (ed. orch. Graham Parlett) [29:06]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Piano Concerto (1930) [28:15]
Legend for piano and orchestra (1934) [13:14]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Orchestra of the Swan/David Curtis
rec. 15-16 April 2009, Town Hall, Birmingham. DDD
premiere recording of Bax Concertino
SOMM SOMMCD242 [70:37]
Experience Classicsonline


It has been a long while since I have heard a major work by Bax for the first time. In the 1970s and early 1980s this pilgrimage of discovery came through the kindness of older collectors who wanted nothing in return. It’s difficult now to evoke the delight of those now-quaint cassettes arriving in the post in ones or twos. Couple this with the weekly scanning of Radio Times for Bax items. The off-air tapes from enthusiasts were played exhaustively. Those recordings were often primitive but how else in those days could I hear Northern Ballad No. 2 and a couple dozen other things that were just tantalising names to me at the time. With Bax the riches now available it’s difficult to imagine how little Bax was available in the 1970s.

The Bax Concertino – written for Harriet Cohen - starts in a combination of the pearly piano ecstatic tremble of the start of the Winter Legends and the leafy emerald shimmer of Spring Fire. The music also touches on Ireland and the sepulchral rumblings of Bax’s own Northern Ballad No. 2. Bebbington is wonderful at the weaving of moonlight and steel. Warlike thrusts cut through the ecstatic and the rhetorical. There is a celebratory roar to the music yet the first movement ends in a typically magical Baxian moonlight. The slow pulse and dreamy climaxes recall Scott’s two piano concertos. The finale is not short on catchy Baxian figures, Irish jiggery, fast flurries and a certain cinematic triumph. Ultimately the finale lacks conviction. As for the name … well, I suspect Concertino was a working title rather than a permanent choice. It sits ill with the music which has bardic Nordic strength. Vintage Bax.

Other Bax revelations remain possible though they are all early works. What about the 1904 Variations for Orchestra, his earliest completed orchestral work? From the following year there’s A Song of War and Victory and most intriguing of all is the 1907 Symphony in F. It was never orchestrated. Bax wrote that "I was engaged upon a colossal symphony which would have occupied quite an hour in performance, were such a cloud-cuckoo dream ever to become a reality". Now that I want to hear. Surely a sympathetic orchestrator au fait with the echt Baxian style will step forward?

On the remainder of this disc Bebbington and the Orchestra of the Swan blithely accommodate the warm and natural trajectory of the Ireland Piano Concerto. It’s an often idyllic work and needs room to stretch and breathe. This it receives and Bebbington brings out the piece as never before. It does, I suppose, have similarities with the Cyril Scott First Piano Concerto of fifteen years earlier and remains a fragile bloom that needs careful nurture if it not to be bruised. For contrast the finale is snappy and the brass memorably bare their teeth. The woodblock perhaps implies a tribute to Ravel while other sections are reminiscent of the de Falla whose Nights in the Gardens of Spain was a favourite of Cohen though she never recorded it.

The Ireland Legend is even more enigmatic and enthralling. It picks up on prehistoric England and carries the murmur of ancestral voices. These sometimes confide in a language no longer known and sometimes bray out with otherworldly malevolence. In its short compass the work is full of stimulating musical detail including the delightful interplay of taut rhythmic work at 6:21 – glorious. There’s also some lovely cor anglais writing which laps around the upland walks and grazings of Sussex. Druidic stuff wonderfully done.

With good notes by Bruce Phillips and by Graham Parlett this CD should do very well indeed. The piano needs controlled impact to make its message. Bebbington is one of the very few whose illustrious cushioned tone appears to transcend the percussive nature of the instrument. That he does so much for British music in the recording studio and the concert hall is to his great credit. This disc continues the line from his recent Ferguson-Rawsthorne SOMM disc. The recording here is one of Somm’s very best.

Phillips has brought the Ireland Trust out into sunlight after decades when its profile was very low indeed. Parlett, the ‘onlie begetter’ of the Concertino as a concert reality has already done so much for Bax. I hope that he will soon turn his attention to orchestrating those early works – the Symphony first please.

The works on this disc make very good companions – brethren under the skin.

Rob Barnett


 

 
 


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