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Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Martin Yates (conductor) 

Bax: Variations on the name GABRIEL FAURE

Bax:  Symphonic Serenade for string Orchestra

Works for Strings by Dodgson, Arnell and Norman Del Mar

Dutton Epoch CDLX 7244

review by Richard R. Adams

There remains very little left of Baxís catalogue to be recorded and what is left are mostly alternative or original versions of well known works or juvenilia that Bax never intended to be performed, let alone recorded.   Despite that, Dutton has managed to provide us with two major Bax premieres that should appeal to more than just the Bax completists.   Adding to this discís fascination is the inclusion of three nicely contracted works by three major English musicians who may not be well known outside British music circles but  whose music is of more than just passing interest. 

The one thing each of these works has in common is that they were all written for string orchestra.  Itís almost impossible  to think of a major British composer from the first half of the 20th Century who didnít write at least one major work for string orchestra.  Elgar led the way with his masterly Introduction and Allegro and Serenade for Strings and the tradition continued with classics by Vaughan Williams and Holst as well as Britten and Tippett.    Bax is one of the few of his generation who didnít compose a major work for string orchestra until very late in his life when he arranged his Variations on the name GABRIEL  FAURE, originally written for solo piano, for harp with string orchestral accompaniment.   According to Lewis Foremanís typically informative liner note, we still donít know what inspired Bax to write the original piano suite based on Faureís name in 1945 but Foreman assumes it was written for Harriet Cohen although she never performed the work publically during Baxís lifetime and the full piano suite has had only one recording by Marie-Catherine Girod  (Opes 3D 8008).   Itís odd then that Bax would decide to make his arrangement of this suite for harp and strings in 1949 as it doesnít appear to have been for a scheduled performance.   Foreman says Boyd Neel later asked Bax about the piece and was sent the score by the composer but it remained unperformed until 31 January 1961 when Neel conducted a performance for broadcast.   The work bears a dedication to Neel in Harriet Cohenís hand.

The Faure Variations is made up of six short movements and those who only know Bax for his tempestuous and darkly-scored orchestral music will be surprised by how light his touch is in each of these charming miniatures.   Itís good to remember that Bax frequently showed a softer and more fanciful side to his music personality in much of his solo piano music and in the Faure Variations, he seems to be mimicking (or paying homage) to a style that is French in that the textures are very transparent and the scoring in the orchestrated version very subtle and restrained.    Itís surprising this work in either of its forms has had to wait so long for a recording as itís so obviously pleasing and I believe would go down very well in a live performance.   I hope more harpists discover this work through this recording and add it to their repertoires.   It may not be a lost masterpiece but itís a memorable score that is wonderfully performed here by  the strings of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Martin Yates.  Sadly, the name of the harpist is not included in the CD booklet. 

As pleasing as the Faure Variations obviously are, it is the Symphonic Serenade by Bax that is this discís major discovery.   Here we have a magnificent new work for strings composed by Bax presumably around 1911 when Bax was experiencing his first full rush of mature creative inspiration.  I say presumably because very little is actually known about this score other than it originates from an eight-page piano draft that was found among Baxís manuscripts at the time of his death.    That this score is now available for us to hear is thanks entirely to Graham Parlett, who both completed and brilliantly arranged the score for string orchestra.   According to his notes, there were only a few tempo and dynamic markings ďand no indication of the intended orchestration, though the layout of the notes suggested that it would be suitable for string orchestra.Ē   Parlett says the last eighteen bars have sparser textures than elsewhere, ďas if Bax were starting to lose interest (or maybe he realized that the music was sounding rather Elgarian) and here it was necessary to add a little more harmony and counterpoint. ď    As Bax left the score incomplete, it was necessary for Parlett to round the movement off by writing a fast 22-bar coda based on earlier material in the score.    Parlett has given the work the title Symphonic Serenade as the manuscript title, Symphonietta Finale, is a little too close in name to Baxís later Sinfonietta and he wanted to avoid any confusion between the two works.

Itís difficult to imagine Bax intended this work for anything than a string orchestra as Parlettís realization is so totally convincing.  His skills as an orchestrator and arranger of several Bax scores is well known but here he really surpasses himself.  The model for Bax and Parlett does indeed seem to be Elgarís Introduction and Allegro and the Bax has a comparable vitality and brilliance to that great work although the musical ideas may not be quite the equal of Elgarís but they are very good nevertheless.  In fact, the second theme sounds a little like something Gerald Finzi might have composed at a later time.  Certainly, it sounds very English Ė much more so than most of Baxís music from this period.   I canít imagine why he decided not to complete it but Iím certainly grateful Graham Parlett has and I hope the fact that it is a completion doesnít prevent it from entering the repertoire.  It certainly deserves its place alongside those other great English string works I mentioned before and weíre fortunate that its first recording is so successful.   Yates and his RLPO crew sound inspired and excited by their discovery and I suspect many listeners will feel the same way also after they hear it.

The rest of the program is made up of three fascinating string works by slightly more contemporary composers than Bax.   My own preference is for the Essay No. 7 by Stephen Dodgson, which might not sound too promising from the title but is actually a very powerful exercise in moody string sonorities that ends very calmly and through its 16 minute duration easily sustains interest, or at least it did mine.   Dodgson wrote nine orchestral essays and after hearing No. 7, Iím quite eager to hear the rest.   Heís a composer Iíll be investigating more thanks to this splendid new recording.

Richard Arnellís Classical Variations in C for Strings, Op. 1 is an early work composed in New York in the late 1930s.   The writing itself sounds very accomplished but quite often the influence of Hindemith seemed too apparent and it was hard for me to recognize any real distinct voice at work although we know Arnell created one later on.    Nevertheless, itís finely crafted piece that I suspect will appeal more on repeated hearings. 

I was really eager to hear Norman Del Marís Allegro Concertane for horn and string orchestra as Iím such a fan of his conducting but admittedly this strikes me as  a rather minor effort  and indicates why he may have pursued a conducting career as I couldnít hear anything in this work  that would warrant repeated hearings.   The writing for the horn is obviously skilled as Del Mar was a horn player himself but the musical material certainly didnít engage me at all.   That said, it was still interesting to hear what Del Mar was doing at this early point in his career and I would still like to hear more of his music especially from a later point in his life. 


The performances by the RLPO and BBC Concert (in the Del Mar) sound totally convincing and Yates a sympathetic interpreter.  This is one of those discs that really rewards exploration and I hope it is successful as it sheds new light on several little known composers and gives us our first chance to hear two significant and very entertaining works by one of the greatest of all British composers.