CD Review

Bax to the future (1)


© Chris Green, March 2017


Arnold Bax with Harriet Cohen (1920)

There are some composers whose musical output- though considerable and praised during their lifetime- disappears from the repertoire within a generation or two. In British music that is true of composers such as John Ireland, Charles Villiers Stanford and - Arnold Bax. Bax died in 1953, having been given the accolade of Master of the King's Musick (a title in British music that goes back centuries), but how often does one find his orchestral works now programmed? The answer is rarely, except perhaps for the tone poem set on the north Cornish coast - Tintagel.

Born in south London, Bax (1883-1953) had a somewhat dramatic conversion to matters Gaelic when, in 1902 he came across the poem by Irish writer, W.B. Yeats, and discovered his passion for Celtic culture. So, despite having roots in East Anglia, his attention turned increasingly across the Irish Sea to what was fast becoming an even more troubled land where resistance to British rule erupted in 1916, followed by civil war and continuing unrest.

Accompanied by his brother, Clifford, Arnold Bax made visits to Ireland and met significant figures in the life of what was to become the Irish Republic (Eire). He turned his hand to poetry and literary matters writing under the pen name of Dermot O'Byrne, and even study of the Irish language and legends.

But it was not just Ireland that captivated him. He fell for a Ukrainian girl whom he had met in London and joined by her, he visited Russia. That spell was enhanced by the visit of Diaghilev's Ballets russes to London, but the lure of Ireland was greater and following marriage (not to the Ukrainian girl), the couple set up house in Ireland, occasionally visiting London. The 1920s and 1930s were to be his most productive period and in that he was to find inspiration through his mistress, the pianist Harriet Cohen. Was it this liaison that may have led to society shunning him? Whatever. He did write music for her including a Concerto for the left hand in 1948, when an injury prevented her from using her right hand for some time.

Recording companies have ventured into recording some of his better known works from time to time including scores for films, but it was Naxos that set a benchmark for all of us who enjoy exploring new sound worlds. For many years now this company ahs been steadily making new recordings of his symphonic works- he wrote seven symphonies- chamber and solo music until there is an exhaustive library of works by Sir Arnold Bax.

So this brief review is by way of introduction to some of these recordings which will provide hours of good listening at budget price and that journey starts with a 1996 recording. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones plays the Symphony No 1 and two of the delightful tone poems, inspired by legend (Naxos 8.553525). The Great War had just ended, Ireland was in turmoil, and Bax responded to the strain of the time when he came to complete this Symphony. What is so typical of these major works is the flood of ideas which sometimes do not seem to knit together as one might expect. This is apparent in the symphony completed in 1922 with fragments of ideas finding their way into each of the three movements ending with an enigmatic triumphal march in the home key of E flat.

More convincing are the tone poems which are also on a large scale but shorter and in single movement form. In The Faery Hills (1909) is a youthful work, brilliantly orchestrated and forming the central part of three works entitled Eire. Henry Wood conducted the premiere and must have found this fresh new voice a revelation. There is more than a touch of Impressionism in the brilliant scoring. Debussy's voice is not far away, Six years later, Bax writes The Garden of Fand - the last of the three Irish works with Irish legend providing the plot. And the recording? Twenty-one years later, it is faithful to the challenging orchestration with solo instruments placed properly in perspective- no highlighting- just good well-balanced sound.

So to Symphony No 2 composed in 1929. In the intervening years, Bax's style had begun to settle and the affinity to that of Sibelius is noticeable in this work. The use of short musical ideas which are used to unify the complete work is more evident as is the contrasting tonality of E minor and C major. This is a sound world distinct from many of Bax's contemporaries such as Constant Lambert and William Walton, both of whom were influenced by the influence of jazz. There is urgency to the feel of this symphony with a large percussion section and organ adding additional colour to the second movement, and with wind and brass dominating the concluding third movement. The Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow makes a venue where the expansiveness of the work is fully realised by the same artists, recording this and the accompanying tone poem, November Woods, a year earlier than the Symphony No 1 (Naxos 8.554093).

See also Bax to the future (2)