In the early seventies I remember looking at the list of Arnold Bax’s compositions in Grove in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow: there seemed so many of them. I guess that I had heard a couple of pieces that had been released on the old Revolution label - I think they were The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew and the Viola Sonata. There were others available, but in those days I could not afford to buy everything I wanted. Besides, there were also albums of music by Led Zeppelin and Yes to buy! Yet, I had been hooked on Bax’s music: the sound-world had captured my imagination. Being a Scot, with Irish and English blood in my veins the music was designed to appeal to all those facets of my inherited character.
One thing is certain: as I looked at the listings of symphonies, piano pieces, tone poems and chamber music, I knew that I would never hear them all. None of my friends had heard of Bax: he was certainly not performed in the concert halls of Glasgow and Edinburgh. I imagined that these evocative titles such as The Garden of Fand, Tintagel, In the Faery Hills or Rosc-catha would remain closed scores, as it were, for the rest of my life.
Fast forward 35 years. Who would have believed that there would be at least two versions of each of the works presented on this CD? In the wider context virtually every major work by the composer would be available – including four cycles of the symphonies! Yet his music is rarely played in concert halls and recital rooms. This year’s Proms is a rare treat for Bax lovers, however the fact remains that most listeners engage with Arnold Bax by way of the iPod and the CD player rather than ‘live’.
The Manchester Guardian reviewer gave an excellent précis of Winter Legends, which may be derived from the programme notes: it is worth quoting. ‘There are three movements: The first is a gradual assembling and forging of various elements into a triumphant climax, the second, on the whole darker in tone, reaches a serene close, and the third, beginning starkly, comes to an end with the return of the sun after a long Northern Winter.’
It is not necessary to elaborate on this description and give a detailed analysis of Winter Legends. However, I think that it is essential to discuss three things: the work’s formal status, the extra-musical associations and the influences.
Firstly, is Winter Legends a symphony or a piano concerto? During the nineteen-twenties Bax had written his first three symphonies. Lewis Foreman has suggested that the composer had a bit of a stylistic crisis when it came to formulating his Fourth, which duly appeared in 1931. Almost as a preliminary to that great work he composed Winter Legends which has the formal characteristics of his symphonies which typically involved three movements with an epilogue. On the other hand, Andrew Burn notes that Bax did not view this present work or the earlier Symphonic Variations as being ‘conventional piano concertos’. In fact, the composer described Winter Legends as a ‘sinfonia concertante’. He told Adrian Boult that ‘the use of the piano was more akin to an important orchestral instrument’. To the listener, there is nothing simple or straightforward about the piano part: I guess it taxes the technique of the soloist to the extreme. However it not conceived in terms of mere technical display, nor is it a competition between piano and orchestra. There is a conversation between the two elements; however, it is more dialogue than dialectic. Bax regarded the formal construction of the piece as being too rhapsodic and ‘free’ to be a symphony as such but was probably content for it to be regarded as one if the listener or critic so chose.
Secondly, Andrew Burn has pointed out that Bax may or may not have had a ‘programme’ in mind when he composed this work, but he certainly never revealed what it might have been. In fact, Bax wrote in the programme notes for Winter Legends that the piece does not have ‘any communicable programme. The listener may associate what he hears with any heroic tale or tales of the North – of the far North, be it said. Some of these happenings may have taken place within the Arctic Circle.
‘Legends that once were told or sung
In many a smoky fireside nook
Of Iceland, in the ancient day
By wandering Saga-man or Scald.’
Bax concludes by suggesting that ‘there is nothing consciously Celtic about this work’.
Even the most cursory of hearings reveals a composition that is packed with musical adventures and covers a whole range of emotions – from ‘joy to sadness, triumph to despair, violence to peace and both love and hate’.
In fact, when I have listened to this piece, I have tended to see it as a major ‘love story’ especially written for the composer’s lover and muse, Harriet Cohen. Certainly a study of this relationship would suggest that Bax (and Cohen) would have traversed many of the emotions present in this work.
Thirdly, it would be easy to suggest that as there is ‘Northern’ colouring to this work, there must be some debt to Jean Sibelius. It is not quite as simple as that. There is little stylistic similarity to Sibelius. Bax has made use of an ‘intricate and closely woven polyphonic texture’ which is very different to the largely harmonic and homophonic writing of Sibelius. However there are similarities of ethos. The contemporary reviewer in The Manchester Guardian suggested that ‘the way in which ... the first movement is built up is strikingly analogous to many of Sibelius’s symphonic movements.’ Finally, furthering the idea of ethos rather than detail, it may be proposed that ‘there is more than a suggestion of the same master’s En Saga.’ Interestingly, the composer originally dedicated the work to the Finnish master but later changed it to Harriet Cohen.
When I first heard this work back in 1987, I considered that it rambled a little: I did not feel that it hung together properly. However after a number of ‘hearings’ the material seems to fall into place. Perhaps the problem was that there is such a huge range of emotion packed into what is a relatively short period (38 minutes).
I love this work in spite of a feeling that it is not quite equal in quality from the first to the last bar. There is a sense that there are pages of genius in Winter Legends that are set alongside music that is not quite so imaginative. Yet the overall impression is of a fine work that manages to hold the listener’s attention from beginning to end.
The first performance of Winter Legends took place at the Queen’s Hall on 10 February 1932 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Adrian Boult. It was performed shortly afterwards in the United States with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky. Harriet Cohen later made a radio studio recording of Winter Legends and this is available on Dutton CDBP 9751.
There is a danger that listeners may down-rate the Saga Fragment simply because it was not a new work, but a reheated piece ‘dished up’ from Bax’s catalogue of chamber music. In fact, they could make no greater error of judgement. As Brian Wilson writing in these pages suggests, ‘it sounds anything but cobbled together.’
The work came about as a result of a request by Harriet Cohen for a short ‘concerted’ piece for her forthcoming American tour in 1933. Bax orchestrated the [Piano] Quartet in One Movement (GP255) which had been written in 1922 at around the same time as he was composing his First Symphony. It was a time when the composer was dismayed by the developing civil war in his beloved Eire.
Lewis Foreman has noted that the original piano part has been rearranged a little with some octave doubling added. The work was orchestrated for relatively small forces - piano solo, trumpet, percussion and strings. The Saga Fragment’s first performance was at the Queen’s Hall with Constant Lambert on the rostrum.
The mood of the music is quite severe. Andrew Burn in the liner-notes of the present CD quotes Cohen writing in her autobiography that this is ‘a savage little work much admired by Bartok’. Bax himself is reputed to have said that Saga Fragment was ‘a rather tough pill’.
Once again Lewis Foreman well sums up the mood of this piece – ‘The composer appears torn between grim contemporary realities and an earlier, more romantic existence.’
Certainly, the piece opens with an aggressive, bristly staccato on the strings, and the piano, when it enters, strikes a sinister note. However this belligerence is not the full story. The composer is almost schizophrenic in his approach to the musical language with the middle section being wistful, reflective and possibly even optimistic in its mood. There is a ‘bardic’ magic in some of the quieter moments in this piece that looks towards the re-creation of an ideal world - most likely in Eire. At bottom, it is the violence pitted against the romance that makes or breaks this piece. Both soloist and orchestra rise to the challenge presented by such a wide range of moods presented in such a short space of time: the piece lasts just under eleven minutes.
No piece could be in such contrast to Saga Fragment than the Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex). Andrew Burn suggests two key factors leading to the composition of this ‘light’ but satisfying piece of music. Firstly, Bax had taken a weekend break from the London Blitz during 1940. He had headed for the Sussex Downs and stayed at the White Horse Inn at Storrington. He enjoyed the atmosphere of this village so much that he rented a room at the inn on an open-ended basis. In fact it became his main residence for most of the remainder of his life. The second event was his appointment as Master of the King’s Musick. Whether he was an appropriate or satisfactory incumbent of that sinecure is a matter of debate, however it did result in a short piece written to celebrate the 21st birthday of Princess Elizabeth. Harriet Cohen made a commercial recording of this work in February 1947 and then publicly performed it at one of Sir Robert Mayer’s children’s concerts. Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. Interestingly enough, neither the recording nor the premiere coincide with the Princess’s birthday which was on 21st April!
Morning Song has been given a wee bit of a hard time by critics, for example M.E.O. writing in the Gramophone has suggested that it ‘has moments of touchingly simple lyricism, but others of aimlessness and clod-hopping as well; it is minor stuff ...’
I personally think this is a lovely work. There is a freshness and a transparency about the music that suggests the composer, who was sixty-four at the time, was looking back to a simpler and happier life. This is not a literal depiction of the Sussex landscape so the ‘clod-hopping’ is disingenuous. Neither are there cows in the byre nor lambkins frisking. It is simply the reflection of a middle-aged man considering a fine landscape and a beautiful and intelligent woman who had just reached her (then) majority. It is optimistic, positive and downright gorgeous.
This new Naxos disc will be in direct competition with the 20 years plus recordings made by Chandos with Margaret Fingerhut and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson. I recall these discs (or vinyl records as they were then) coming out and the excitement of hearing these works for the first time. I enjoyed those performances then and until the present disc they were the only modern option. They remain benchmark recordings. However competition is good: Ashley Wass, the BSO and James Judd have given the Chandos and Dutton versions with Harriet Cohen, a run for their money. Naturally, all Arnold Bax enthusiasts will want to have the Wass/Judd/BSO recording in their libraries.
The liner-notes are comprehensive and well-written; the sound quality of the recording is excellent. Even the CD cover picture adds to the chilly aspect of some of this music.
One contemporary reviewer suggested that Arnold Bax’s ‘Northern’ or Scandinavian period was not quite as successful as his dealing with the fairies and leprechauns of Ireland. This is hyperbole. Winter Legends is a fine work that deserves its place in the symphonic and concerted literature of every orchestra. However this present CD gives three works that reflect three sides of the composer’s character, the wild landscapes of the North, and the often troubled, but magical realms of the West and the beauties of the South as seen in Sussex. Other music will need to be listened to for an appreciation of Bax’s Eastern (Russian) influences.