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Arnold BAX (1880-1953) Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1934) [37:56] Stanley BATE (1911-1959) Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1953) [22:18]
Lionel Handy (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland - no recording date given LYRITA SRCD.351 [60:23]
As is to be expected of a Lyrita-sourced disc this is a programme of considerable musical interest and artistic merit. One small curio, it seems to have been created under the auspices of Dutton and the master-tape subsequently licensed to Lyrita. Quite why Dutton should choose not to release this disc under their own banner given that it fits their house style I do not know - the important fact is that we are able to hear it whatever the label.
Coupling Arnold Bax with Stanley Bate is an interesting and unique concept. Here we have two essentially lyrical/romantic concertos that explore the darker more troubled aspect of the cello's character. I have to admit to being an unrepentant admirer of Bax's music but the opportunities to hear his larger-scale music on disc and in the concert hall are limited. The fact that there are three complete cycles of the symphonies plus the five recorded for Lyrita (1/7; 2/5; 6) remains something of a miracle (review). The concerted works have fared less well and the cello concerto least of all. Commercially there is only the version on Chandos from Raphael Wallfisch accompanied by Bryden Thomson and the LPO to compete with this new disc. Prior to receiving this new disc I had not listened to the Thomson/Wallfisch for some time. The soloist on the new disc is Lionel Handy accompanied by Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Yates orchestrated the early Bax Symphony in F and the RSNO were the first orchestra to record a complete Bax cycle for Naxos. Add to that the fact that Handy performed the concerto as part of the Bax centenary celebrations thirty years ago and you will see that this is a performance that benefits from performers well versed in the Baxian sound-world. Michael Ponder acted as both producer and engineer and he creates a warm and detailed soundscape in Glasgow's Henry Wood Hall. Perhaps Handy has been placed a fraction further forward in the picture than I would ideally prefer but he plays with absolute security and conviction and his technique can bear such close inspection.
In the liner Paul Conway draws attention to the detail of Bax's scoring and it is here in particular that this new performance scores over the older Chandos disc which is now - rather terrifyingly - some 27 years old. It dates from the time Chandos used All Saints Tooting as their recording venue of choice and for all the 'glamour' of the sound there is a rather glassy resonance that obscures the subtler details of the score. I have not heard the 2003 re-mastering to know how much of that has been tamed - certainly on the original disc it remains an issue but before dismissing the earlier performance, coming to it after the Handy/Yates I find Wallfisch/Thomson to be much more compelling story-tellers. Bax is always accused of rambling and becoming discursive; the new disc tends to reinforce that perception. In every movement this new performance is substantially longer than the earlier one. By movement (Wallfisch first): 14:16/16:25 - 9:29/11:36 - 8:46/10:03. The first movement in particular 'feels' long with Handy. That said, I like very much his muscular almost gruff approach. This does suit the craggy drama of the work but Wallfisch finds a lot more light and shade, his is a more febrile, edgy interpretation and one that benefits from Thomson nudging the music forward. In his cycle of the symphonies Thomson was sometimes criticised for the reverse - allowing energy to leak out of the scores. But in his time he was famed as an especially fine accompanist in concertos so perhaps he took his cue from Wallfisch. In his extraordinarily thorough book "A Catalogue of the works of Sir Arnold Bax" Graham Parlett quotes the composer writing to cellist Beatrice Harrison; "Be careful not to let the beginning hang about rhapsodically. It must go along with urge and fire. Cassado [the dedicatee and first performer] made this mistake at first, but the other day ... was just right". Elsewhere Bax wrote regarding Harrison - the work's main champion - "... she must be kept in order about rubatos ..." Both quotes tell me that momentum and impulse are important in this work.
That being said the way the Handy relaxes into the lyrical second theme [track 1 4:50] benefits the music - here Wallfisch feels restless - but he is better and picking the momentum back up where Handy continues his rather steady way.
The central movement is quite beautiful - unusually for Bax it is titled Nocturne and according to Harriet Cohen was written to quote Bax again; "to recall you to your naughty boy ..." Cohen had accompanied Cassado on a recital tour and pestered him to commission the work - he is the 'naughty boy' but this is rather chaste and lyrical music rather than the smouldering eroticism the title and quote might imply. Bax expert Lewis Foreman hears an oblique tribute to Strauss' Don Quixote in the duetting cello and solo viola in this movement and goes on to suggest that Moeran quarried some of the instrumental effects in the second and third movements for his own G minor Symphony which was being written at this time.
The poise and reflection of this slow movement suits Handy's style well and again the detailed new recording does allow the sophisticated detail of Bax's scoring to register. Again, valid though this approach is I find Wallfisch's greater fantasy ultimately more rewarding - he has the full measure of the range of Bax's pensive twilight. This movement is very fine indeed and probably contains the finest music on the whole disc. Early critical opinion was that the finale was something of a throw-away after the drama and atmosphere of the previous two movements. It certainly feels lighter in spirit and content but is effectively played by both cellists.
If it were for the Bax alone I would not hesitate in saying that collectors already possessing the earlier recording either in its original guise coupled with some orchestral works or the later re-mastering with the Violin Concerto and Morning Song need not buy this new disc. However, even for Bax admirers such as myself the curiosity-tweaking interest of this release is the presence of Stanley Bate's Cello Concerto in its premiere recording. Dutton have rather promoted Bate's work (reviewreview) which makes it all the more surprising that they chose to pass on this release. As with the Bax, this is a work in the traditional three movement fast-slow-fast format. Again, as with the Bax, the scoring is relatively restrained although the Bate is slightly unusual in having reduced wind; two each of flutes, oboes and bassoons but only a single clarinet offset against a full brass complement. Until a revival in his music through the medium of CD he was truly a forgotten composer and one imagines a sense of being forgotten in his own time and writing music not of that time contributed to his suicide at the age of 47 in 1959.
Certainly this is instantly attractive and skilfully written music. Paul Conway in his liner rightly points out that Bate writes themes that are easily distinguishable and his sense of form is clear and well defined. This is unashamedly Romantic music which exploits the singing quality of the instrument. I see from the liner that Handy was responsible for creating both the score and a set of performing parts for the work - a very major undertaking even before learning a note of the solo part. Committed advocate though he is of the Bax concerto I cannot help wondering whether the Bate was the real impetus for the making of this disc. Clearly, there is not another recording available to compare or contrast with but I have a sense that Handy is even more engaged with the Bate than the Bax. My response is perhaps a little more lukewarm. Bate's orchestration here and in the other works I have heard I find thoroughly competent and effective but rarely inspired or imaginative. Likewise his harmonic palette; it is good and tasteful but with few of those sideslips and surprises that Bax produces by the bar - too often his detractors might say with some good cause. Martin Yates has been on the podium of nearly all the Bate recordings for Dutton so he can claim to be the most experienced conductor of his work today. As with the Bax, Yates and the RSNO prove sympathetic accompanists. Again, as with the Bax, the central movement - here an Andante - contains the best and most memorable music in the work. It starts with a chord that sounds as if it could have been lifted from Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia and then moves on to a passionate extended arioso that brings out the considerable best in Handy. The Bate concerto predates Walton's essay in the form by some three years but they share the same sense of pained lyricism. This central movement contains the brief cadenza before an interesting passage where the woodwind carry the melodic content with the soloist accompanying with fluttering trills. Another similarity with the Bax is that the finale feels like the weakest music in the work - trying slightly too hard to be upbeat and with an even more abrupt conclusion than the Bax. Conway hears a melodic similarity to the song "Let's face the music and dance" which is passing at best - not too much "trouble ahead" for the plagiarism lawyers, I feel. My concern is that it feels rather more worked out than the spontaneous flow of melody the central movement contained. That being said it is a concerto I am very glad to have heard and certainly will be a piece admirers of the composer and those interested in British string concertos will want to hear.
As with all Lyrita discs this is immaculately presented; excellent concise - English-only - liner-notes and biographies, beautifully engineered - whatever the source and an attractive cover portrait of Bax. Interestingly this same painting - by Vera Bax - differently cropped is also used on Handy's disc of Bax's works for cello and piano. The only minor blot on the Lyrita presentation is that they state 'recording location and date' but give no date. Running at just over the hour mark perhaps it would have been nice to be offered another short (concertante?) work by either composer. Highly enjoyable music even if neither work represents the composer at his absolute finest.