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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]

A new Bax release, especially with a premiere recording, is particularly welcome. This is all the more the case when the standard of performance is so captivating and the recorded sound so vivid. In fact I have taken this recording as one of my choices for 2014. My reasons are expanded here since this album arrived when I was away from home and I have had little time to write.

The premiere recording is of the Four Orchestral Pieces of 1912-13; clearly an early work, inspired by the countryside around Rathgar, Dublin. Being an incurable romantic, I was particularly impressed with the lovely atmospheric sound-picture that is the opening movement, ‘Pensive Twilight’ — “Music of gentle, refined melancholy” as one critic described it. Equally affecting is the third movement ‘In the Hills of Home’ scored for divided strings and harp with solo violin — a lush musical love-letter to an early girlfriend. The ‘Dance in the Sun’ movement is a pleasant piece but slight. The ‘Dance of Wild Irravel’, the concluding movement, including music in waltz-time sounds quite modern for its era. In fact it anticipates Ravel’s La Valse.

The Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra created quite a lot of interest when the work was premiered. Very few composers had attempted to create a concerto for viola. Philip Dukes’ instrument sings poignantly and beguilingly throughout. This is a work that reflects the composer’s feelings about the political turmoil going on in Ireland at the time. In fact at its climax there is a quotation from the Sinn Fein marching song.

The Overture, Elegy and Rondo is a more mature work, written between his Second and Third Symphonies. Romance is restrained and the sound-world rather modern. The opening movement looks back to 18th century musical traditions — a tradition Bax had previously disparaged — although dressed in Bax’s more vivid twentieth century orchestrations. The Elegy sounds quite spooky and spiky while the concluding Rondo opens cheerfully with a fanfare-like melody. It ends exuberantly but there is a broodingly pensive section in the middle.

A very welcome addition to the Bax discography.

Ian Lace

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson and Rob Barnett

A very welcome addition to the Bax discography.