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.
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.