Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Spring Fire (1. In the Forest before Dawn; 2. Daybreak; and Sunrise; 3. Full Day; 4. Woodland Love (Romance); 5. Maenads) (1913) [32:33]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Idylle de Printemps (1889) [10:45]; North Country Sketches: The March of Spring (1914) [10:08]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Enter Spring (1927) [20:50]
The Halle/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 18 March 2010, 14 October 2010, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (Bax; Idylle); 23-24 June 2010, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester (March; Bridge). DDD
HALLE CD HLL 7528 [74:30]
The planning behind this disc shows not only enterprise but also great imagination. Here we have four very different responses to Spring from three English composers.
Bax’s Spring Fire is a great rarity. Indeed, in his recent very wide ranging interview with Michael Cookson, Sir Mark Elder says he knows he is the only conductor who currently performs the work – because he’s in possession of the only set of parts! Earlier in his conversation with Michael, he refers to the work as “a masterpiece, a huge orchestral piece.” That belief in the quality of the score shines out in this very fine live performance. For all its rarity, the piece has had a previous recording, by that other doughty champion of English music, Vernon Handley. That was made in 1986 (CHAN 8464) and the coupling is more Bax, though I think Elder’s programme is the more interesting.
Spring Fire dates from 1913 and is cast in five movements, which play continuously – though, as Lewis Foreman points out in his note for the Handley recording, at one point Bax thought of combining the first two movements. The piece is fascinating and often full-blooded, though the opening movement, ‘In the Forest before Dawn’, is gorgeously languid. As Spring Fire unfolds the orchestration is increasingly colourful, detailed and brilliant. The depiction of sunrise, just before the end of the second movement, may not be as expansive or extended as in Daphnis et Chloé but it has, perhaps, more pagan exaltation. The third movement, ‘Full Day’, is hedonistic and exuberant. Here especially Elder’s Hallé brings Bax’s rich scoring excitingly to life though these excellent players are just as convincing in the more delicately scored passages, in which at times a solo quartet of violins features. A slow, sultry passage leads to the penultimate movement, ‘Woodland Love (Romance)’. We’re told in the useful booklet notes that the score is marked ‘romantic and glowing’, followed by ‘drowsily’. That’s just how the music sounds here. This spacious, erotically charged music is superbly realised by Elder; the playing has delicacy and refinement and the various solos are delivered excellently. The final movement is entitled ‘Maenads’ after the female followers of Dionysus. The music is headlong, riotously colourful and celebratory. The orchestra really gets hold of the piece and the brass and percussion in particular have a field day. It’s good to hear such a rare piece receiving warm applause from the Mancunian audience but the quality of the performance, which is captured in vivid sound, more than justifies the reception.
Another rarity is Idylle de Printemps by Delius, one of his earlier works. According to Calum MacDonald’s notes, the piece was scarcely heard in the composer’s lifetime and even less so thereafter until the 1990s. This is rather odd since apparently Beecham owned the autograph score for many years. Did he play it and, if not, why not? It’s not a work that I can recall coming across much – if at all – in the past but it’s well worth hearing. As it says in the notes, “the mood is contemplative, taking delight in a sense of the natural world.” The Hallé plays it marvellously, combining warmth and finesse. Incidentally, though this is also a live recording there is no applause afterwards. I hope that this fine new recording will help to establish the piece, for that it what it deserves.
The March of Spring is a much more mature work in every sense. It is the last of the four movements that comprise North Country Sketches and the music shows the composer’s delight at the reviving return of Spring. Sir Mark and his excellent orchestra bring out all the detail of the score in a very fine performance. The use of the word ‘march’ in the title is a bit of a misnomer, though there’s a brief, slightly martial episode a couple of minutes from the end. What Delius has written is more of a celebration of nature and the new life of Spring. It would be good to hear Elder in the complete North Country Sketches.
Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring is not exactly standard repertoire either. If memory serves me right Elder and the Hallé gave this work at the 2010 BBC Proms, which would have been a few weeks after this recording was made. It’s a fairly late work by Bridge and so it comes from the period, after the First World War, when his work had become influenced by some of the more advanced European composers and had become much more adventurous and harmonically unstable. It was commissioned for the 1927 Norwich Festival and I was surprised to learn from Calum MacDonald’s outstanding note on the piece that this was the first – and only – time that Bridge received a commission for an orchestral work. Mr MacDonald relates that the audience for the first performance included the young Benjamin Britten, who was so impressed by what he heard that he resolved to become Bridge’s pupil. Britten said that he was impressed by the work’s ‘riot of colour and harmony’ and so can we be in this splendid Hallé performance. I know of three previous recordings, all of which I admire very much. There’s the 2000 recording by Richard Hickox, part of his Chandos series of Bridge orchestral music (review). There’s also what was the pioneering account – in the sense that it was the first to be issued – by Sir Charles Groves, which was made in 1975 (review). Most interesting of all, in many ways, is the live account conducted by Benjamin Britten in 1967, forty years after he attended that première. According to the notes with the present disc, the Britten performance represented the revival of the work; it had not been played for thirty-five years. Britten’s reading was issued in 1999 by BBC Legends (BBCB 8007-2). I fear that will be long deleted but if you ever track down a copy, snap it up for the performance and, indeed, the entire content of the disc, is well worth hearing.
It’s quite a while since I listened to Enter Spring and I was very interested to note the disparity between the various conductors in terms of the time each takes to play the score. Groves is the most expansive, taking 21:22. Hickox and Britten are significantly swifter overall at 18:36 and 19:44 respectively. Elder is closer to Groves at 20:50. I must say, while in no way disparaging the considerable merits of his rivals, that I admire Elder’s way with the score enormously. His is an expansive but not indulgent reading. He’s particularly successful, I think, in balancing the often teeming detail of the score – and credit for that must also go to the engineers. The Hallé’s playing is absolutely superb. I think this is now the finest account of this important score that I know; Bridge’s prodigious invention and great originality is revealed by a highly sympathetic interpreter and a top flight orchestra.
This is a marvellous disc. The repertoire is unusual but fully deserving of the public’s attention. Sir Mark Elder has already attracted many plaudits for his advocacy of English music but, if I may say so, it’s great to see him prepared to venture quite far off the beaten track. Music such as is contained on this disc isn’t desperately fashionable but its neglect is unjustified, as performances of this calibre show. I hope that Elder will undertake more works by these three composers for advocacy such as this can only further the cause of their music.
See also review by Rob Barnett (Recording of the Month, May 2011)
A marvellous disc of unjustly neglected English music, superbly played.