Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
London Pageant (1937)
Concertante for cor anglais, clarinet, horn and orchestra (1948-9)
Suite from Tamara (1911)
Cathaleen-ní-Hoolihan (1903)
Gillian Callow (cor anglais); John Bradbury (clarinet); Jonathan Goodall (French horn)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec Studio 7, BBC, Manchester, 17 May 23 June 2000 DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 9879 [74.33]
Crotchet    Amazon UK    Amazon US

Have we all come to take Chandos for granted? Their dedication to the Bax cause is unique. Single-handedly they have populated the catalogue with all the symphonies, all the concertos, and most of the orchestral and chamber music. Nor has this happened in a great rush. You can look back to the very early days of CD (1983, ... how soon we forget) and a little beyond to find the company's Bax Fourth and the first collection of tone poems all extremely well directed by Bryden Thomson with the wonderful Ulster Orchestra (heir to the cuts-slain BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra). Their version of the Fourth is as much a reference as Norman Del Mar's Sixth on Lyrita (still impatiently awaiting reissue) and Myer Fredman's Second Symphony (also awaiting the same attention).

Bax takes up several pages in the current Chandos catalogue and this disc, with Brabbins (a more familiar figure on Hyperion) directing, valuably repairs some gaps in the Bax discography.

London Pageant is not even second drawer Bax but it speaks volumes that I succumb so easily to its bombastic ceremonial brilliance. Hardly the 'shatteringly apt displays of pomp and circumstance' by which Edward Greenfield described the two Walton Coronation marches but by no means worthless either. It probably goes on too long and cannot hold even a guttering candle to the contemporaneous Walton Crown Imperial. Worth the odd airing and to be compared, I would say, with the raucous Rosc-Catha with glorious rasping and rolling trumpet legatos in the final pages. File with the as yet unrecorded Work-In-Progress Overture.

The Pageant is from just past Bax's high maturity and the final shudders of the Seventh Symphony. The Concertante (why that name for this work and for the Left-Hand piano work - why not Concerto?) is from late on in his career written for a Henry Wood Memorial concert conducted by Sargent. The work is retrospective and nostalgic and recollections of Wood's championing of the Third Symphony might well have been in the composer's mind. The three instruments each have a solo role in the first three movements, all coming together in the finale.

The cor anglais is associated with Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela (try 8.19) and that, together with other Grez-inflected Delian ideas, are to be heard. There is a break for a truculent little march of the Rosc-Catha type. At 7.49 the composer quotes from the Third Symphony. The Clarinet scherzo spins and skips along with the Slavonic zest of Troika and In a Vodka Shop. A more plaintive note (clearly linking to the 1930s clarinet sonata) is struck in the allegretto semplice. Nice to see John Bradbury's name and to hear him again. I cherish memories of his BBCSO broadcasts of the Mozart Concerto and the Stanford. The horn lento is nostalgic but lacks indelibility despite the feeling with which it is imbued by the soloist and the orchestra. The finale rollicks along in rustic charm and delicacy. The music has more to do with the lighter Bax (e.g. Three Orchestral Pieces) than the emotional crises of the Sixth Symphony. The natural-sounding recording is free from the stifling density that clouds the success of the Chandos First and Second Symphonies.

Graham Parlett (a long-time supporter of Bax to whom I owe a great debt for his unrewarded kindness in introducing me to so many Bax works on tape back in the late 1970s and early 1980s) has done astounding things with the music from Tamara. There are far more movements (thirty, in fact) in piano score than the five here. The ballet was written with a speculative view to performance by Karsavina in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Bax had always had a predilection for Russian romanticism (witness the Russian Easter Festival quote in the Third Symphony, the various explicitly Russian pieces, his passionate pursuit to the Ukraine, the gaudy splendour of his Fifth Symphony etc). The Prelude is dark and jaunty - dark as in Balakirev and jaunty as in Mussorgsky's operatic dances. Properly the whole work should be orchestrated - something Bax never did. The shape of the theme in the Prelude at 5.05 follows the outline of the great melody in Rimsky-Korsakov's Antar Symphony. The Dance of the Water Spirits is pure light fantasy and the clarinet decoration is wildly Rimskian. The convulsive drum and tambourine-goaded abandon is from Prince Igor. The Enchanter's Palace shares some of Kastchei's dread and the staccato Dance of the Slaves is castanet-punctuated. The gently coaxing Naiads prepares the ground for the blacker rites of the Hunt and Apotheosis. At the height of the Apotheosis Bax releases a tune of great span to vie with Fand.

Cathaleen is from yet earlier and, while not fully formed Bax, a not inconsiderable theme the envy of many a more prominent composer, is to be heard. The tone poem is from his earliest and truest Celtic twilight days. If the work lacks toughness it is fresh and has about it an oxymoronic quiet triumph associated with the artistically and politically emergent Eire. These were the days when Bax counted the poetry of Yeats as superior to all the music ever written.

A warm and well imagined collection, then, with everyone up to their highest standards. Not the place to start your Bax collection, certainly, but far more rewarding than Baxians might have feared. Any disappointment will not be down to Chandos, the artists or Lewis Foreman whose notes are a pleasurably welcome fixture. More Bax please. How about a disc including the immature tone poems such as A Song of War and Victory?

Rob Barnett

See also review by Simon Jenner

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers:
Amazon recommendations