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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Twenty one songs

A Christmas Carol
Far in a Western Brookland
The Market Girl
Langueo d'amours
Femmes, Battez vos Marys
La Targo
The White Peace
Song in Twilight
Out and Away
I heard a Piper
Shieling Song
To Eire
Rann of Exile
A Milking Sioan
The Flute
I have a house and Land in Kent
Jack and Jone
O dear! What can the matter be?

Patricia Wright - soprano
Richard Greager - tenor
Christopher Keyte - baritone
Rosemary Barnes - piano
rec 1991 St Silas Church, Kentish Town, London
CONTINUUM CCD1046 [66.01]

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Recorded performances of Bax's songs, strangely enough, are scattered here and there throughout the catalogues - rnostly single items in recital (the single exception being an elusive cassette - Ensemble TR 1002 - with David Owen Norris and a variety of singers - an important tape since it concentrates on the early songs, then coherently characteristic). Because of this 'The White Peace' keeps cropping up with the result that inevitably this song (perhaps along with 'I heard a piper piping'), lovely though it may be, has become the principal representative of Bax's one hundred or more songs. In fact neither it, nor 'I heard a piper' are by any means the most characteristic.

The present disc, brought out some ten years ago with the support of the late John Bishop and now reissued, includes twenty-one songs - seven of which date from 1905/9 and fourteen from the period 1918/26. Yet between 1909 and 1918 Bax wrote some twenty four songs - many unpublished and now lost - settings chiefly of Rückert, Dehmel, Meyer and Hartleben - as well as the only Shakespeare. Nevertheless the songs that are on this disc are quite beautifully sung by Patricia Wright and her colleagues - and are accompanied (if one may use the term 'accompanist for such intricate writing) with just the right amount of unshowy panache by Rosemary Barnes. It is difficult to say just exactly what are the predominating characteristics of Bax's song writing indeed his very eclecticism has a chameleon-like quality - his reactions to the varied poetic image quite different in each song - the quasi-mediaevalism of 'Eternity' (58 bars of which 32 are for piano alone) - the essentially choral 'Magnificat' - the richly contrived texture of the early (1905) 'Song in the Twilight' by his cousin Freda - and the elusive James Stephens' ·Out and Away, one of the last songs he wrote, whose ethereal chord progressions verge on atonality. - perhaps the only connecting thread being a thin vein of Celticism, itself expressed in diverse ways. It also becomes obvious here that Bax, though a supreme melodist (think of 'Fand' 'Tintagel' and the slow movement of the Second Symphony!) his melodic lines are essentially unvocal - conceived in instrumental terms and then tending to virtuosity - and after 1918 he chose frequently lines to already extant melodies which his rich palette of quasi-orchestral colour could illuminate, as in the lambent chiaroscuro of the settings of traditional French songs, and in the more harmonically restrained, Moeran-ish settings of Campion and Ravenscroft. The remaining songs in the selection - apart from the liturgical, and the over-elaborate 'The Flute' (Bjørnsen 1907) have their origins in the Celtic poetry of Fiona MacLeod, Campbell and Colum.

Two songs however remind us that Bax, despite his exoticism, was a thoroughly English composer. His setting of Housman's "Far in a Western Brookland' sounds every bit as Housman-ish as the songs of such as Wilfred Orr, Somervell, Butterworth and Ireland. Hardy's 'The Market Girl' is a joyous, superbly subtle cameo, unsurpassed by anything in the canon of English song. I personally have always felt that the real Bax - he of the symphonic works - is enshrined in the powerful early songs of which, on this disc, 'Song in the Twilight' is the sole, but intensely beautiful representative, which I played over and over again. A fine disc, that must surely be followed by another exploring other facets of this many-faceted personality

Colin Scott-Sutherland.

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