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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Four Orchestral Pieces (1913/14) [26:54] (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])
Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra (1920) [21:52]
Overture, Elegy and Rondo (1927) [24:12]
Philip Dukes (viola)
BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 20-21 May 2014, BBC Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10829 [73:23]

It is always pleasing to see a new release of Bax’s orchestral music and this is the first I have seen for a while. In the 1960s/70s the Lyrita label was busy recording the symphonies and some of tone poems. For the birth centenary in 1983 most of his works were made available in modern digital recordings. Chandos is to be congratulated for recording the Bax symphonies and tone poems twice: first under Bryden Thomson and secondly under Vernon Handley. In the late 1990s/2000s Naxos also got in on the act with a cycle of the symphonies and tone poems under David Lloyd-Jones. So Bax’s music is now well served on record but far less so in the concert hall. It would take a several internationally renowned conductors to begin to champion Bax’s music and give it the momentum it needs to gain a firm hold on the concert repertory. That day if it ever happens seems a long way off.
 
The Four Orchestral Pieces sometimes know as the Four Orchestral Sketches and the Four Irish Pieces are relatively early - around six years before the completion of his First Symphony. At this period leading up to the First World War, Bax was living in Ireland and gaining much inspiration from its countryside, folk tales and myths. Lasting between five minutes to just over eight minutes these are compact orchestral sketches. The first piece, Pensive Twilight has a nocturnal feel with an undertow of sadness and Dance in the Sun is directly appealing, teeming with bright tuneful writing. Scored for strings only the Mountains of Home (In the Hills of Home) conveys a reflective mood of yearning. The last of the four to be written and requiring a larger orchestra is The Dance of Wild Irravel. In this Bax pictured “a gipsy mood” and contains a trance-like excitement. Of the all the scores on this release The Dance of Wild Irravel is probably the finest.
 
Originally designated by Bax as a ‘Concerto’ the three movement Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra was written in 1920 for Lionel Tertis who premièred the score at the Queen’s Hall in London. When compared to Bax’s violin and cello concertos the Phantasy, although agreeable, lacks the same level of invention and fails to hold my interest in the same way. That said, this score couldn’t have finer advocacy than the beautiful playing of soloist Philip Dukes. Opening with a lament the writing of the first movement swirls around in a rather uncertain manner. Lyrically tender the central movement Lento semplice is based on a pleasant Irish folk song and meanders somewhat aimlessly. Imbued with the spirit of Irish folk dance the predominantly upbeat Finale: Allegro vivace incorporates a brief reference to the Sinn Féin marching song which later became the National Anthem of the Irish Free State.
 
Completed in 1927 when Bax was in his mid-forties the Overture, Elegy and Rondo - a substantial if somewhat unexceptional score - comes between the first and second symphonies. Bax dedicated it to Eugene Goossens although it was Henry Wood who gave first performance and John Barbirolli the second. Upbeat and affable, the Overture contains a curiously calm central section that suggests the gentle lapping of lake water. The Elegy opens with prominent brass and develops a mood of luscious romantic musing. The Finale: Rondo evokes an image of bathing in the pool of a waterfall in high summer.
 
These are enjoyable and appealing orchestral works yet none strike me as demonstrating Bax at his most inspirational and memorable. Missing is the magic, imagination and overall satisfaction of his finest symphonic poems such as November Woods, Tintagel, The Garden of Fand, Into The Twilight and In The Faery Hills; let alone such larger scale works as Spring Fire and Winter Legends. Despite my reservation over the works themselves Sir Andrew Davis secures an impressive response from the BBC Philharmonic who never put a foot wrong. The sound quality is splendid with plenty of body and presence. There is an equally fine booklet essay by Lewis Foreman.
 
Michael Cookson
 
Previous review: Rob Barnett