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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Four Orchestral Pieces (Pensive Twilight [6:46]; Dance in the Sun [6:43]; From the Mountains of Home (In the Hills of Home) [8:11]; The Dance of Wild Irravel [5:01])) (1913-14) [26:54]
Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra (1920) [21:52]
Overture, Elegy, and Rondo (1927) [24:12]
Philip Dukes (viola)
BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. MediaCity UK, Salford, 20-21 May 2014
CHANDOS CHAN10829 [72:23]

No record company has done more for Bax than Chandos, having recorded all the symphonies, twice over – Bryden Thomson (review) and Vernon Handley (review) and pretty much everything else. At one time we would have said that of Lyrita. However, when for decades Lyrita pretty much dropped out of the picture as a digital player and turned its back on CDs Chandos stole a march ... or ten. In fact one of the earliest Bax CDs was an early 1980s Chandos release of Bryden Thomson in a selection of the tone poems and then a still-unequalled Bax Fourth Symphony (review). That Fourth Symphony was an astute choice as in the 1980s it complemented the symphonies Lyrita had recorded and the efforts by Barbirolli and Downes at the Third Symphony on EMI and RCA respectively. Both those Chandos recordings gave a kick start to the Bax centenary celebrations, as did the generous BBC Radio Three programmes in 1983.
 
Here, in this extremely welcome CD, are three multi-partite works written during the Great War and between the wars; the latest completed in 1927. Two pre-date the turbulent First Symphony and the last followed the magnificent Second Symphony and the rather static-poetic Third by which Bax was known for many years.
 
The Four Orchestral Pieces are not-so-miniature miniatures. Pensive Twilight is pretty much summed up by the title. For once the feyness of the piece reflects Bax's Irish-Celtic Twilight years. The jaunty Dance in the Sun — or Sunlight, as the BBC, EMI and Neville Dilkes would have it on the latter's early 1970s LP — is a sort of obverse to Bax's nature idyll strand. This more mesmeric aspect which is heard in The Happy Forest and Nympholept is not entirely absent from this Dance but a sort of light music jaunty-innocence predominates. This reading, superbly recorded, as is the whole disc, is rather deliberate by comparison with Dilkes and before him the under-estimated and unfairly forgotten Ashley Lawrence in BBC studio broadcasts. Perhaps Davis's approach reflects nymphs in their forties rather than Dilkes' more athletic, winged teenagers. It's a different and less headlong take on the piece. From the Mountains of Home is pretty close to Hollywood lush (try 2:50). It's very romantic indeed and Yuri Torchinsky's slowly relished solo violin plays a major part. Lastly we have the fascinatingly named Dance of Wild Irravel. Again this is lively Bax and clears the head. The booklet tells us that Irravel seems to be related to an Irish word meaning hallucinative delirium. This is a bubblingly active dance with a touch of La Valse about it. Waltz allusions were to reappear at the end of the 1930s with the Bax Violin Concerto and also in his short and rather flat Mediterranean which was recorded by Boult for Lyrita and Hickox for EMI. Castanets figure both in the Irravel piece and in Mediterranean. It is interesting to compare the innocence and intensity of these works with those produced by Frank Bridge at the same time - especially his Summer.
 
The three-movement Phantasy for viola and orchestra was written for Lionel Tertis. It has been recorded before - first by Rivka Golani for Conifer circa 1989 and then by Roger Chase for Dutton in 2012. It begins in gruff aggression typical of the First Northern Ballad. At 5.47 the viola sings out with heartbreaking nobility. There are links in this first movement to the Second Symphony's great melodic convulsions. This is lively and vivid music-making where again the recording reaches out to the listener. The viola placement is resinously engaging throughout.

The triptych Overture, Elegy and Rondo dates from Bax's high maturity in transition between the nature celebrations and meditations of the Third and Fourth symphonies and the Nordic vigour of Winter Legends and the Fifth Symphony. It is dedicated to Eugene Goossens who was to make a sensational version of the second symphony in the 1950s with BBCSO - you can hear a rather wan recording of this on Dutton. Overture, Elegy and Rondo is not new to recording. It came out on LP and CD in 1987 on Marco Polo (now Naxos) but in a version which, while very welcome at the time, is well and truly eclipsed by Chandos and Davis, both in terms of the performance and the recorded sound. In the vigorous Overture Bax again found his stormy self. At times this communicates as a sinister dance of death - a bitter Dies Irae. It is driven by a ruthless horn figuration typical of that found in the launch of Northern Ballad No. 1. The Elegy inhabits the realm magically established in the sound of the Sixth Symphony. It's tense and burred although at 3.07 it does congeal and its progress becomes treacly. This torpor is exorcised by the bright and eager Rondo with its horn call and lighter-hearted mien. It has great momentum in the hands of Davis and the BBC Phil who have long had a Bax tradition stretching well back into the 1950s and BBC Northern Orchestra days.
 
The notes are by Bax doyen par excellence Lewis Foreman. He has commentated over my Bax journeys for as long as I have been discovering or attempting to review Bax. Now here is a man deserving of at least of an OBE for his services to British music.
 
The way is now clear for Chandos to produce a Bax Edition to share a large shelf space alongside their Grainger Edition and perhaps also the return of their Walton Edition.
 
These are sensational recordings, and allowing for Dance in the Sun, the performances are never less than splendid.
 
Rob Barnett

Comment from reviewer Nick Barnard
I enjoyed reading your Bax review today of the latest Chandos disc.  I completely agree in every respect - out of curiosity I had downloaded their "Studio Master" version and it sounds fantastic.  I'd say one of Chandos' most successful later Bax discs (heresy as it sounds I was not as blown away by the Handley discs as many!)  I think the Overture, Elegy & Rondo emerges with a stature I didn't think it had before.  I also agree the only mis-judgement is a leaden Dance in the Sun(light) - not much "vivo" in his allegro.  You don't mention the very good version of the 3 Dances (in the small orchestra version) by Jeffrey Tate and the ECO on EMI.  His Dance takes just 4:50 to Davis' 6:48 - a huge difference although to be honest I have not listened to them against each other so carefully to be 100% certain Bax didn't lop off any bits in making the smaller version - I don't think so but couldn't swear to it.  Whether he does or not Tate captures the essence of it much better.  Oddly though other parts of that disc are the reverse - a very lugubrious Lonely Waters/Whythorne's Shadow - Dilkes stays my preferred versions for those.

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