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Northern Ballad No.1, Northern Ballad No.2, Prelude for a Solemn Occasion,

Into the Twilight, The Happy Forest, Red Autumn, Nympholept.

BBC Philharmonic, Vernon Handley. 

CHAN 10446 [76:44] 

Recorded in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 20 and 21 December 2006 and 20 November 2007 (The Happy Forest).

Review by Graham Parlett


Vernon Handley’s first collection of Bax tone-poems with the BBC Philharmonic (CHAN 10362) appeared in 2006 and contained superb performances of The Garden of Fand, In the Faery Hills and November Woods, together with the Sinfonietta. It was an outstanding success, culminating in a nomination for a Grammy award, and it is a great pleasure to be able to welcome this second volume in the series. The CD opens with what the annotation calls the ‘Three Northern Ballads’, although, as I have remarked elsewhere, I find myself unable to join Dr Foreman and Dr Handley himself in regarding the Prelude for a Solemn Occasion (1927-33) as a ‘Northern Ballad No.3’. Nevertheless, I can quite understand why some people are attracted to the idea of having a ‘Northern’ trilogy to match the earlier ‘Irish’ one (Éire). I also agree that the original title is rather off-putting, and Foreman’s view that ‘the designation “Third Northern Ballad” represents a practical way of advancing the fortunes of the work’ seems reasonable.  

The First Northern Ballad was premièred in Glasgow as ‘A Northern Ballad’ and received its second performance in London a few weeks later, when it  replaced Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony, which (according to The Musical Times) ‘had been promised’. It aims to give ‘a general impression of the fiery romantic life of the Highlands of Scotland before the opening up of the country subsequent to the ’45 [Jacobite Rising of 1745]’ and is full of rousing calls to arms, march rhythms and, in the middle section and transitions, Scotch mists and folk-like melodies with a Scotch snap. Handley and the BBC Philharmonic get it off to a cracking start with a really decisive thwack on timpani and pizzicato strings as the horns announce the opening motif, and there then follows a splendid, forthright performance, better played than the only other commercial recording: the LPO under Sir Adrian Boult on Lyrita (SRCD 231). The latter is quite rough in places, and Boult sounds as if he wanted to get through the work as quickly as possible, though even his recording is not as swift as Rumon Gamba’s mad dash through the Scottish highlands which was broadcast a while back. Handley’s performance is also quite brisk but never sounds hurried, and he soon makes us forget the reservations of those who regard it as not being out of Bax’s top drawer.  

Handley first recorded the Second Northern Ballad for Chandos in 1986 (with the RPO, currently available on CHAN 10155), but this new performance is quite different in many ways and certainly much more urgent (over two minutes faster). At a first hearing, I thought that some of the music in the first section was being rushed a little, but this may be due to my long familiarity with the earlier, slower recording, and anyone coming fresh to the piece should have no difficulty. This is one of the darkest scores that Bax ever wrote, containing some of his most dissonant writing and more than a hint of his beloved Sibelius. Much use is made throughout of the woodwind instruments’ lower registers, and the middle section of the work actually begins with a twenty-three-bar passage for woodwind alone ― one of the longest stretches of music without strings in any of Bax’s orchestral works. Handley gradually draws all the threads together for a really splendid attack on the barbaric coda, which brings the work to a shattering conclusion, and here the orchestra pulls out all the stops. The composer himself was never quite sure whether he liked the piece, but admirers of his music tend to rank it highly among his tone-poems, and I am inclined to think of it as being a stronger work than The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew (another ‘Northern Ballad’ in all but name). 

The Prelude for a Solemn Occasion received its first performance  in 1982 with this same orchestra (then called the BBC Northern Orchestra), conducted by Edward Downes, and this was later issued on the now defunct BBC Radio Classics label. Despite lacking an organ (which is not really essential) I prefer Downes’s performance to the one that Bryden Thomson recorded for Chandos in 1987. Indeed, the organ part in the latter, although recorded at the same time as the rest of the work rather than being dubbed on later, is actually out of sync with the orchestra during the climactic penultimate page, which is rather disconcerting. Handley’s performance (also with organ) comes somewhere between Downes and Thomson in terms of speed but for my money is better played than either. The work opens in mysterious vein with a subdued idea on muted brass that seems to anticipate the principal theme from the first movement of the Sixth Symphony. Gradually the music becomes more and more animated, and in the final pages this theme is blared out triumphantly by the full orchestra.

Next we hear what I think is the finest performance of Nympholept to have been recorded so far. Originally written for piano solo in 1912 and then orchestrated in February 1915, the work is one of the most texturally intricate of Bax’s tone-poems, rivalled only by Spring Fire, and was never performed during his lifetime. In 1935 Bax told Boult that he was revising the piece, but there is no trace of a later score, though it may have been around this time that he added the dedication to Constant Lambert, who was only nine years old when it was actually completed. ‘Nympholept’ comes from a Greek word meaning one who is enraptured by nymphs, and the full score is prefaced by a quotation from George Meredith: ‘Enter these enchanted woods | You who dare....’. The first to venture into the enchanted woods back in May 1961 were, appropriately enough, the Strolling Players Orchestra with Terence Lovett. It then remained unplayed until 1983, when Vernon Handley gave a broadcast with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra. Bryden Thomson first recorded the work for Chandos in 1986, but the combination of prosaic playing and the resonant acoustics of All Saints Church in Tooting made it one of his less successful performances. David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos (8.555343) is excellent, and Rumon Gamba has broadcast a fine performance with the BBC Scottish Orchestra. The success of this new version is partly due to the clarity and richness of the recording but also, of course, to Handley’s ability to set just the right tempo and to ensure that the melodic lines come through the dense canopy of Bax’s musical woods. He also manages to integrate the scherzo-like passages more successfully than previous conductors. There is beautiful solo playing from strings and woodwind (note, in particular, that solo for piccolo in the middle section uniquely marked ‘elfin and soul-less’), and indeed the whole orchestra plays throughout with ardour and conviction. How sad that Bax himself never, as far as we know, heard the work played. 

Nympholept is followed by my orchestration (at the Bax Trust’s request) of the miniature tone-poem Red Autumn, which was originally written for piano solo in 1912, the same year as the piano version of Nympholept, and published in an arrangement for two pianos in 1933. The work is in the same tripartite form as Bax’s other tone-poems, but on a smaller scale (just over five minutes), and always brings to my mind the phrase ‘a storm’ or (as Americans say) ‘a tempest in a teacup’. I have always found it an elusive piece of music, its restless, rapidly changing moods making it difficult to grasp, and I am not at all convinced that it really works as an orchestral piece; but listeners must make up their own minds. There is a good performance of the two-piano version on Chandos (CHAN 8603) and an even better one on Naxos (8.570413).  

The next work on the disc is The Happy Forest, a ‘Nature-Poem’ composed in 1914 after an Arcadian prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon but not orchestrated for another ten years. It is the only published work on the disc (full score from Murdoch, 1925, now Warner Chappell) and provides a contrast to its companions, being in effect a scherzo and trio. The outer sections are full of lively woodwind and string figurations, suggesting the fantastic denizens of the forest cavorting merrily (or lasciviously) in the sunlight, while the slow middle section is not unlike the ‘Woodland Love’ movement of its near-contemporary, Spring Fire (1913). The work was first recorded by Edward Downes with the LSO nearly forty years ago, in January 1969 (RCA label, coupled with the Third Symphony), and it remains my favourite performance, lively in the outer sections and with the middle section taken at a slower pace than in any other version but with really sensitive playing from the LSO; a pity that it has never been reissued on CD, though I have heard rumours that this may yet happen. Then came Bryden Thomson’s recording for Chandos, which is slower than Downes’s in the outer parts but faster in the middle, and finally David Lloyd-Jones recorded it for Naxos, taking the opening (marked ‘Vivacious and fantastic’) at a cracking pace. Handley, in contrast, plays the first section more slowly than any of the other conductors, and I confess to finding it rather heavy-footed and lacking in sparkle. The third section, which repeats much of the material in modified form, is slightly quicker, but the preceding slow middle section is taken at a surprisingly fast pace, which for me spoils the enchanted atmosphere that Bax was trying to create. Nevertheless, the dance music is strong rhythmically, and with such an experienced conductor at the helm there cannot fail to be many points of interest along the way.  

The final work on the disc is the intimate 1908 tone-poem Into the Twilight, ostensibly after the poem of the same name by Yeats but originally intended as the prelude to Bax’s projected opera Deirdre and later designated as the first of the trilogy of tone-poems entitled Éire (together with In the Faery Hills and Rosc-catha). The score was only played once during Bax’s lifetime (under Beecham) and then swiftly forgotten ― a pity since, although it shows signs of immaturity, it has a unique atmosphere and could have been penned by no other composer (except perhaps, in one or two places, by the later Moeran, who was still at school when it was written). Once again Handley turns in the best performance so far committed to disc. Marvellously hushed playing from the clarinets at the opening (marked by Bax ‘echo tone’), and then a richer sound for the strings’ first statement of what would probably have been Deirdre’s motif: it also occurs in the prelude to the opera and in ‘The Well of Tears’ from The Bard of the Dimbovitza, echoing the eponymous heroine’s epithet: ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’. Many of Bax’s orchestral works contain passages in which he sets up elaborate meshes of sound that continue for several bars before the thematic material is introduced, the individual strands of the texture serving a purely impressionistic purpose. One such example starts around 3:52, in which eleven bars of increasingly complex fabric are woven as a background for the main melody on cellos and horn (which is taken from the earlier tone-poem Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan). This passage is most poetically managed here, as is the following, more fragmented texture, with solo woodwind, harp, celesta and violin, the leader of the orchestra, Yuri Torchinsky, playing his many solos most sensitively. There are, by the way, no trumpets in the score at all, but at the climax of the work (around 10:50) four trombones (unique in Bax’s music but with the fourth, as usual, played here by a tuba) are added to the orchestral texture for just a few bars. The final page, with its sustaining clarinets and hushed pizzicato notes from the lower strings, is exquisitely done.  

So ends a really splendid release, with nearly seventy-seven minutes’ worth of Bax in his familiar role as nature-poet depicting enchanted woods and forests, the harshness of the North, and the alluring atmosphere of his beloved Ireland. On 19 December 2006, the day before the recording sessions began, the orchestra had broadcast all the works on this disc (apart from The Happy Forest) in front of a studio audience, though not all the players were happy at having to perform so much unfamiliar music live, often from old, handwritten parts. But in the event the orchestra acquitted itself with consummate professionalism, and I remember one young player bounding into the control room afterwards to say how much he had enjoyed it all. This exercise did at least mean that the players knew the notes in readiness for the recording sessions over the following days, and this is evident from the confident performances we now have. With Stephen Rinker as Sound Engineer, it is no surprise to find that the music comes across throughout with great richness; but I was also struck by the extraordinary clarity of the recording, even more so than in previous Chandos issues. We should also once again be grateful to producer Brian Pidgeon, the mastermind behind the recent crop of Bax recordings. The informative notes are, as usual, by Lewis Foreman, and the booklet contains several interesting pictures from Mary Gleaves’s photo album, including a hitherto unpublished one of the composer at Morar wearing what appear to be knickerbockers with a pair of snazzy socks; the evocative Atkinson Grimshaw painting on the front of the booklet is a striking bonus. Once again Vernon Handley proves that when it comes to this repertoire he is unrivalled, and I look forward eagerly to his further collaborations with the BBC Philharmonic.