Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra (1920) [17:31]
Theodore HOLLAND (1878-1947)
Ellingham Marshes for Viola and Orchestra (ca. 1940)* [15:55]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra (1933-34) [24:16]
Reflections for Viola and Small Orchestra (1990/2012)* [21:10]
Roger Chase (viola)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Stephen Bell/*Richard Harvey
rec. The Colosseum, Town Hall, Watford, 16-18 April 2012
* World premiere recordings
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7295 [79:13]
There has been talk for decades about a second recording of the Bax Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra. Finally one emerges from the realms of vapour-ware and it is little surprise that it comes from indefatigable and inspired Dutton.
The Bax has appeared on CD before, though only once. Rivka Golani recorded it in 1989 for long-disappeared Conifer (CDCF171) alongside the Elgar Cello Concerto as arranged for viola by Tertis and the same composer's three Characteristic Pieces for viola and orchestra. That collection rather echoed the even more alluring English piano and orchestra collection also on Conifer (CDCF175) by Kathryn Stott which has been reissued by Dutton. The Phantasy is as near-as-damn-it to Bax’s Viola Concerto though these days it would not at all surprise me if the contemporaneous and masterly Viola Sonata were not orchestrated to companion the Phantasy.
The Tertis-dedicated Phantasy is typical rhapsodic Bax and Chase does a great job of keeping a firm grip on the forward momentum of the piece while not short-changing the Szymanowski-style poetic asides. The work starts with a gruffly belligerent gesture, reminiscent of the anger that launches the Northern Ballad No. 1. This furious tone is maintained through the warlike march episodes that give backbone to the first movement. The central panel is sweetly released by Chase and his collaborators. There’s a tense and toe-tapping half-jig, half-quick march in the finale which, while it might remind us occasionally of RVW, is flooded with Baxian aggression that melts at times into razor-sharp romance and melancholy. The ending is well wrought and fittingly flourished by soloist and well-conducted orchestra. Exemplary Bax.
It’s a while since I have heard the Golani but this strikes me as more dynamic and will certainly speak to those who find Bax too rhapsodic by half. It has also been played and in some cases broadcast by Ralph Holmes, Bernard Shore, Steven Burnard and Frederick Riddle.
For years I have been wanting to hear Theodore Holland’s Ellingham Marshes. That appetite began when a friend sent me tape of Holland’s Spring Sinfonietta. We are told that the composer was a friend of Bax at the Royal Academy of Music and he was later John Joubert’s composition teacher. This substantial quarter-hour poetic tone poem dates from the early war years. It is intended to evoke or is at least inspired by the Suffolk marshes. It is not at all the swooningly fey exercise I had thought. In fact it is intense and radiant with darker rhythmic material. It has quite a bit in common with the Bax but with some Patrick Hadley and even Ravel-like moments. It ends on a breath-taking filament of sound. No rowdy finale here. A very beautiful work - extremely well served in this its first ever recording.
The RVW Suite has been recorded several times before: Frederick Riddle (RCA and Chandos) and Helen Callus (ASV), not to mention by Melvin Berger on a Pye Collector Series GSGC 14049 LP in 1966 (not sure if ever reissued on CD), by Lawrence Power on Hyperion CDA67839 and by Yizhak Schotten on Crystal CD 837. Rather like the Finzi Bagatelles for clarinet and piano (orchestrated by Lawrence Ashmore) this sequence of miniatures has many instantly attractive episodes and a high quotient of VW’s most pastorally-inspired writing alongside kinetic romps like the Galop.
We end with Richard Harvey and his Reflections. This began life as Reflection on a Changing Landscape which was premiered by Chase as part of the Exeter Festival in 1990. The four movements are Awakening, Shadowplay, Borderlands and Remembrance. Awakening reminds me of Hovhaness such is its delicacy and plangency. Here it is treated with great delicacy and whispered care. Harvey's writing is like everything else here, written in the resilient melodic tonal mainstream that lived on through the ascendancy of more sterile styles. It is in the English pastoral mainstream, notwithstanding my reference to Hovhaness, or at least it is in Awakening where it attains real emotional voltage and swell. Shadowplay is wispily eerie and derives from music Harvey wrote for the Granada TV series on Len Deighton's Game, Set and Match. Similarly inspired is the desolate meditation of Borderlands drawn forth by Ian Holm as Deighton's spy Bernard Samson. It moves from slow evolution to Glass-like propulsion at the close. The final Remembrance does elegy and beauty so well. It starts elegiac and bids adieu in celebration - joy in the life of Richard Gregson-Williams. The music ends with a few more glistening strokes that reminded me of Hovhaness. The Harvey is a lovely piece and furnishes well rounded satisfaction with which to end this treasurable disc. Chase is the dedicatee alongside Richard Gregson-Williams, one-time director of the Exeter Festival.
The Harvey reminded me - in its impact rather than its detail - of the music Carl Davis wrote in the 1970s for one of the best-ever Hardy television adaptations: The Mayor of Casterbridge in which the late Alan Bates was unforgettable as tragic Michael Henchard. It was on a 1978 LP EMI INS 3021. There are also touches of the more understated music for Polanski's Tessby Philippe Sarde - don’t turn your nose up until you have heard it. It also brings to mind the Elegy for viola and orchestra (from the film Lady Caroline Lamb) (1972) as recorded by Philip Dukes on Chandos CHAN 9867 (2001) and before that by Peter Mark on EMI British Composers 5861882 (2004) and on LP HMV CSD 3728 in 1972.
Chase again presents these works associated with Lionel Tertis on Tertis’s own Montagnana viola.
Dutton could hardly have been more generous: the four works run just shy of eighty minutes. We get two works in recording premières, one - the RVW - previously recorded several times and the Bax recorded commercially only the once before. The essays are by Graham Parlett except for the Harvey where the composer has provided his own. The recording is exemplary with violist-turned-engineer Michael Ponder at the audio controls showing fellow feeling for Roger Chase's viola.
Chase is no stranger to pioneering viola repertoire. If we restrict ourselves to Dutton he can be heard in the concertos by Stanley Bate and W.H. Bell on CDLX7216, on CDLX7250 in Tertis transcriptions of sonatas by Delius and Ireland and in Dale's viola works - or some of them - on CDLX7204. To all of these he has brought real insight and his performances while not lacking in passion and poetry also evince thoughtful study and ideas that have matured. No evidence of the sight-reading conveyor belt.
Passion and poetry, thoughtful study and ideas that have matured. No evidence of the sight-reading conveyor belt.
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