Arnold BAX (1880-1953)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1934) [37:56]
Stanley BATE (1911-1959)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1953) [22:18]
Lionel Handy (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland - no recording date given
LYRITA SRCD.351 [60:23]

Lionel Handy has long been devoted to the music of Arnold Bax. A previous disc saw him playing the music for cello and piano – including the Sonatina, Rhapsodic Ballad and Legend-Sonata (Sleeveless Records SLV1007) – a disc that, incidentally, shared the same cover art as this Lyrita release, namely Vera Bax’s portrait of the composer. Lyrita has gone for a close inspection of Bax’s face whereas Sleeveless Records gave us the full picture: Bax in a green deckchair reading a book.

There’s not much time for novel-reading in this bipartite Lyrita disc, recorded by Michael Ponder, which pairs Bax with Stanley Bate. Bax’s Cello Concerto is the ugly duckling to the Violin Concerto’s swan, though as with the duckling so with the concerto; it grows into a fine edifice when properly marshalled. There have been very few opportunities to hear it. Broadcasts have been rare, and there is only one previous commercial disc, by Raphael Wallfisch and Bryden Thomson. It’s a shame that Gaspar Cassadó, who premièred it in 1934, didn’t record it at the time as it would have set down a marker – rather as Antoni Sala and John Ireland did when they recorded the latter’s Cello Sonata some years earlier. The fact remains that Cassadó gave up on the work soon after the première and it was left to the indefatigable Beatrice Harrison to take it on.

Bax’s traditional three-movement concerto can clearly take divergent responses. Handy’s approach is relatively horizontal in terms of tempo relations, and he and Martin Yates are a good four minutes slower than Wallfisch. They pay considerable attention to detail and relish the harmonies as much as Bax’s brassy, exciting climaxes and as a result they possess the more elastic sense of the music’s rhetoric. The Lento is richly nourished. Wallfisch and Handley offer a more urgent response all-round. Yet a fascinating survival attests to the way the concerto was played pre-war; a 1938 Harrison performance with Henry Wood, largely intact on Symposium – there are gaps for side changes – shows that Harrison’s approach, on a par with Wallfisch’s time-wise, was even more theatrical and dramatic. There is a passionate, almost pungent intensity to her sound and performance that, occasionally frustrating though it may be technically, resonates with archival interest. Wallfisch approximates this kind of approach, though he doesn’t replicate her intensity. Handy offers another avenue, a more quiescent, ruminative approach.

It’s the ruminative that strikes one when listening to Stanley Bate’s Concerto of 1953, heard here in its premiere on disc. The score and orchestral parts were produced by Lionel Handy specifically for this recording. Bate’s Concerto shows adroit construction, its malleable and flowing first movement second-subject having folkloric hues, and fine wind counter-themes, as well as demonstrating control of some rather militant outbursts. To these the cello responds by seeking reprieve in its own jig-trot rhythm. There’s a refined lyricism in the central slow movement, indeed a kind of serenity evoking in part the mood of VW’s Fifth Symphony. The finale is jaunty and full of witty moments, notably the gurgling winds. Far more compact than the Bax, the Bate makes a welcome, much needed appearance in this fine performance.

There are excellent sleeve-notes from Paul Conway and the finely judged recording catches the Royal Scottish in good form.

Jonathan Woolf
Previous reviews: Michael Cookson and Nick Barnard


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