CD Review

Bax to the future (2)


© Chris Green, July 2017


The silver sands of Morar (Scotland)

My last review featured works by the British composer Arnold Bax ending with the Second of his seven symphonies. This review takes us a few steps further in the series of recordings, most of them issued by Naxos - a label that has done more than many companies to record much of Bax's music, whether it is orchestral or instrumental.

The company is well served by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, musicians for whom the Bax oeuvre could hardly be familiar. The Third Symphony launches this collection. He had taken to his heart the small hamlet of Morar on the west coast of Scotland and there he spent the winter of 1928-9. The work was dedicated to one of the greatest of British conductors of the time, Sir Henry Wood after whom the famous BBC Proms were named, and it was he who conducted the premiere in 1930.

The 1996 recording reveals many of the characteristics of Bax's musical language especially the bleakness, evident at the opening of the work before the mood is broken by a more energetic section. One of the other characteristics of Bax's symphonic style at this point is the looseness. There are seven sections to this movement but sometimes the musical structure feels in serious need of tightening. Of the movements, the third brings us closer to Bax writing for the cinema with hints of a much later Fagin's Romp. As with many of the Naxos releases, the symphony is paired with one of Bax's tone poems, in this case The Happy Forest sketched just before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and premiered in 1923. It makes for a delightful short orchestral work, impressionistic rather than programmatic (Naxos 8.553608).

Naxos' series of Bax symphonies continued in a 2000 recording of Symphony No 4 with David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as he had done for Symphony No 3 (Naxos 8.555343). Once again Morar had played a part in the creation of this work for it was there that he completed the symphony in 1931 and within a year it was performed in San Francisco. A large orchestra was employed for the work which Bax claimed was inspired by the sea. Other writers have noted that the slow movement contains reference to a work written many years before for his lover, Harriet Cohen, except that by 1931 he was involved in another relationship with Mary Gleaves with whom he stayed in Scotland at the time of composing this work. It seems that the music could serve two mistresses.

With a running time of just under 40 minutes, the programming has once again mined the orchestral out of Bax with two works opening the recorded programme, Overture to a Picaresque Comedy, is also a product of that Scottish sojourn and dedicated to the celebrated composer and conductor of the Halle Orchestra, Sir Hamilton Harty. Best described as a mix of Baron Ochs meets Sancho Panza, the style owes much to Bax's contemporary, Richard Strauss, whilst the third work in the collection, Nympholept has more in common with the spirit conjured up in the impressionism of Claude Debussy whom he met in1909 when he accompanied a performance of some of Debussy's songs in the presence of the Frenchman..

The relationship with Harriet Cohen had started in some time before 1920. She had been a pupil of Tobias Mathay, a celebrated piano tutor at the Royal Academy of Music, where Bax had also studied. We certainly know that the Symphonic Variations was dedicated to her and was premiered by Sir Henry Wood at a Proms concert in November 1920. The work had been written over two years (1916-1918) and is an extensive quasi concerto in two sections, each with three distinct sections bearing headings Youth, Nocturne and Strife, the Temple, Play and Triumph. There appears to be no programme to this sequence and, if Elgar's Enigma Variations presents a challenge to the music interpreter, so too does this work lasting over 45 minutes (Naxos 8.570774).

The 2008 recording - this time recorded by the much-underrated Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd with Ashley Wass as soloist- is coupled with the Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and orchestra completed in 1949. Its origins - like much of what Bax wrote - are bedded in passion. In this case it was the revelation by the composer to Harriet Cohen on the occasion of his estranged wife's death, that he had another mistress. Cohen had imagined that Bax would marry her, and now the relationship was in tatters. She was injured in a domestic accident and lost the use of her right hand. So, notwithstanding what had been happening, Bax obliged with a concerto.

Whatever the circumstances and the scandal, it did not stop Bax being appointed Master of the King's Musick.

See also Bax to the future (1)