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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
London Pageant (1937)
Concertante for Three Wind Instruments and Orchestra (1949)
Suite from Tamara (1911)
Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan (1905)
BBC Philharmonic/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 17 May & 23 June, 2000, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
CHANDOS CHAN 9879 [74.33]
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Cradle to grave Bax, or perhaps grieving to gravitas, from the first piece to the penultimate one: the public Bax of London Pageant, the 1937 Coronation piece famously overshadowed by Walton's Crown Imperial of the same year.

Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan (1905), Bax's treatment of the slow movement of the second of his student string quartets in E, of 1903, is far more interesting than one might have supposed. Almost Bax's first orchestrated piece, its layered profusion and undertow of woodwinds rippling through the strings, gesture toward an individual sound through a wash of Strauss and Bantock, with just a hint of Debussy. Betraying its quartet origins, it begins on what sounds like another neo-Irish folk tune. Bax disliked direct quotation, but this unguarded early one resembles one of Stanford's Irish Rhapsodies. Because it isn't an opening movement, it hasn't that angular melodic profile on clarinets that characterises say, the opening of Into the Twilight (1908) or the single one of In the Faery Hills (1909) of a few years later. But the woodwinds and horn interjections, above all its climax, clearly anticipate the martial Roscatha from 1910. There's a quite surprising level of incident for a slow movement, ensuring its 12.10 minutes unfold and don't curdle.

The discovery is from 1911; something Baxians have been waiting for, a score almost as revelatory as Spring Fire of two years later. Tamara was Bax's excited response to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes of that year, and the dancing of  Tamara Karsavina, for whom he was to write ballets later. Bax wrote a piano score of over two hours, but didn't orchestrate it, waiting for an introduction to Diaghilev before he committed himself to such a task. Then, the 1912 Ballets russes season announced Thamar, and Bax simply put the score away. Karsavina, who only knew about the score years later, was to dance one of the numbers, the marvellous Apotheosis which Bax re-used in 1920 as the 'Dance of Motherhood' in The Truth About the Russian Dancers. He also published it as a piano piece, Water Music, in 1929. As Parlett says, his final inspiration would have had to be quoted earlier when presenting the ballet. It almost comes in the preceding number, 'Naiads', which can only provoke speculation at what Bax might have done had he orchestrated the whole. Perhaps Graham Parlett could do it for Naxos!

Parlett has orchestrated a necessary suite from this music, but at 23 minutes it seems too short for what he himself terms 'glorious music'. He particularly regretted impressive pastiches of grand polonaises (opening of Act II). Chandos should have been more generous, making a whole CD of it and finding something else from Bax's student years; or, tantalisingly, completing the Piano Concertino of 1939, which needs work in the finale only. Lewis Foreman suggests that the vibrant and attractive Tamara might have given Bax the wrong success, too derivative of the Mighty Handful and Glazunov when his style changed from 1912-14 with the impact of Stravinsky and Debussy. I'm not sure such a score would have done an English composer harm; other scores soon followed. It was left to Constant Lambert to prove that British composers could write ballets. Parlett's orchestration draws on some scoring indications (including glockenspiel), Bax's scoring of his two ballets, From Dusk till Dawn (1917) and The Truth About the Russian Dancers; and the Russians just mentioned. The wonderfully crunchy brass (with echoes of Finlandia!) and orchestral opulence prefigure, too, Spring Fire and the first two symphonies.

London Pageant perhaps shouldn't be judged as a failed march. In truth, only Elgar and Walton managed one memorable example apiece, and even Walton's Orb and Sceptre of 1953 (again quite overshadowing Bax's re-cycled Malta GC effort) doesn't measure up to them. So this leaves Bax elsewhere, composing a piece whose outer reaches bustle with contrapuntal echoes of his Sinfonietta (1932) and particularly the Overture, Elegy and Rondo, another Sinfonietta, of 1927. This is effective, and perhaps indicates the source of his late neo-neo-classical style. But numerous episodes, not at all germane to marches or pageants, drift in from faery land - literally, since a student march from the starry year of 1905 (the year Bax reached his desired 22) furnishes one of the few martial notes in what Foreman rightly suggests is 'more a tone poem than a pure concert march.' Its nearest cousin is the Festival Overture of October 1909.

Foreman, so expansive on Tamara, is slightly perfunctory about the extended late score, the Concertante for Three Wind Instruments and Orchestra (1949), which he discusses at length in his biography. Here, he feels the first three movements with their respective solos for cor anglais, clarinet and horn, could be more positively programmed together without the full orchestral last movement, or separately. The last movement, 'whilst still enjoyable, is laboured by the standards of his best orchestral music.' Foreman revised his view of the Left Hand Piano Concertante, and perhaps he might here, too. Clearly Bax intended to draw his strands together, and in truth it sounds differently to the preceding three movements. These open with a pianissimo Elegy movement, a winding cor anglais theme that only slowly gathers an obvious momentum, recalling the Third Symphony. It in fact is inscribed 'Lament for Tragic Loves, 1803', for Irish patriot Robert Emmet and Sarah Curran, quoting 'She is far from land' from Moore's Irish Melodies. It's really enchanting and recalls his symphonic slow movements, more delicately. The following Scherzo is a bubbling clarinet solo recalling the Clarinet Sonata's finale, and distinctly memorable. The horn Lento is delicately handled with harp accompaniment evoking his Irish period. This is hardly surprising, since the first movement so overtly invokes it. Why should Bax, in 1948-9, revert to Irish themes, something he'd not really broached for nearly thirty years (the choral St Patrick's Breastplate, 1923, being one of the last isolated instances)? Perhaps de Valera's imminent severing of Commonwealth ties, or Bax's feeling that he would like to retire and bind himself to Ireland, something he was about to do at his death in 1953.

The solos are all beautifully taken, and the BBC Philharmonic under Martyn Brabbins (have Chandos and Vernon Handley totally fallen out?) play sumptuously and with genuine Baxian feeling. Because of the music's range and quality, this is a fine disc to summarise fugitive Bax; even if the opening with London Pageant won't suit delicate tastes.

Simon Jenner

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