English Spring – music by Bax, Delius and Bridge
Hallé Orchestra; Sir
Mark Elder, conductor
Review by Richard R. Adams
I can’t believe I’m actually writing this but I wish the producers
of this disc had scrapped this live performance of Bax's
Spring Fire and in its
place given us either a complete performance of Delius’s
North Country Sketches or
a disc devoted entirely to Frank Bridge's orchestral music.
Now my allegiance to Bax is second to none and I'm passionate
Spring Fire, which for
such a young British composer to have written in the years just
before World War I is astonishing considering how advanced
harmonically it is compared with almost everything else that was
being written at that time by Bax's British contemporaries.
What this disc demonstrates is Elder's gifts as a master
Delian and likewise his performance of Bridge’s
Enter Spring is the best
I’ve heard since Sir Charles Groves classic EMI all-Bridge recording
from the 1970s but this live Hallé account of
Spring Fire – a Mark
Elder specialty – is for me a bit of a disappointment especially
when considering the magnificent performances he’s directed of it in
the past. So what
Sir Mark Elder fell in love with
Spring Fire almost
immediately after hearing Vernon Handley’s RPO Chandos recording
from 1986. Elder
first conducted it at a Proms concert in 1996 with the BBC Symphony
Orchestra and later with the City of Birmingham Orchestra, the
Chicago Symphony, the Netherland Radio Symphony Orchestra and last
year with his own Hallé Orchestra and it’s this latter performance
that is on this disc.
There’s no denying the control and beauty of the Hallé’s
playing and Elder is as sensitive as ever to the rapt moods of this
work but it’s his handling of the scores’ rambunctious inner
movements that to my ears sounds strangely cautious and slow.
Comparing this performance to the wonderfully alive and vital
account he gave with the BBC Symphony in 1996 (that has never been
released on disc but needs to be as it’s the best performance of the
work I’ve ever heard) makes me wonder if Elder’s view of the music
has significantly mellowed or are his slower tempos the result of a
lack of rehearsal time with an orchestra that as far as I know has
never played the work before.
I suspect the latter and I hope Elder will again perform
Spring Fire with the
Hallé as it’s obvious they responded to the music with some
wonderfully sensitive playing; particularly in the glorious coda of
“Woodland Love”, which was undeniably magical.
This is only the second commercial recording of
Spring Fire to be
released and anyone investigating the work for the first time should
stick with Vernon Handley’s 25-year old Chandos account despite the
overly reverberant acoustic that annoyingly blurs a lot of the
orchestra detail but as a performance it is everything you'd expect
from Handley in Bax – including his unerring sensitivity to the
ever-changing moods and kaleidoscope of colors while at the same
time holding the massive frame of the work
together without ever
sacrificing the expressivity of the playing.
It’s a great performance but I still long for that recording
that is as exciting as Handley and as sensitive as Elder but
presents the work in better sound – such as what the Hallé recording
provides here for Elder.
If only his interpretation had that extra ounce of,
Despite the slightly disappointing Bax, this disk is still a
must-buy for the brilliance of the other performances.
I’m not aware of any other Frank Bridge recordings by Elder
but I sure hope he does more because based on this account of
Enter Spring he is fully
attuned to that composer’s special magic.
I never thought I’d hear a recording of
Enter Spring that would
challenge my affection for Sir Charles Groves’s account on EMI but
Elder does just that and in some ways, his performance is superior.
Certainly today’s Hallé Orchestra is a more virtuosic band
than Groves’ wonderful Royal Liverpool Philharmonic from the 1970s
and that pays dividends in the music’s many fleet sections which
here are played without any hint of caution at all.
This performance was rehearsed and recorded in the studio and
produced by the great Andrew Keener so that may help explain why
this account is so polished and brilliant.
If only Spring Fire
could have been given the same amount of rehearsal time and
preparation, it might have sounded more like this.
The Groves EMI disc is an essential purchase for anyone
interested in 20th Century British music but this Elder
disc supplements it very nicely.
In addition to Enter Spring,
the other highlight of this disc is the 'March of Spring' from
Delius’s North Country
Sketches and it’s no surprise that it was also recorded in the
studio with Keener again producing.
There's a suppleness to the phrasing and some extraordinary
solo work (as in the Bridge and Bax) that is ideal for this music
and Elder's way with Delius is reminiscent of his great predecessor,
Sir John Barbirolli, in
that he isn't afraid to emphasize the music's
We're rather short for great Delians at the moment so it's very
encouraging to learn that Elder is a dedicated Delian and I hope now
that he has recorded almost all the major works of Elgar, that he
turns his attention to this most underrated of British composers.
I can only imagine the
Song of the High Hills,
and Mass of Life
he could give us. In the
meantime, this sample from
North Country Sketches and the early
Idylle of Printemp serve
as wonderful teasers.
And I desperately hope Sir Mark Elder continues his advocacy for Bax.
His performances of
Spring Fire and Tintagel
over the years have proven his dedication and even this restrained
performance of Spring Fire
is evidence of a natural Baxian whose affection for the music is
evident. I'd love
for Elder to branch out and conduct some of the symphonies (I think
he'd give us an amazing Third, Sixth or
Seventh) or the very
greatest of Bax's tone
poems: November Woods and
Garden of Fand.
I also hope that at some time he revisits
Spring Fire and records
it again -- perhaps with the Hallé after they've played it a few
In the meantime, we have a disc of glorious music played by a superb
ensemble and conducted by a real
master . Thank goodness
they are committed to recording music by these great but