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Bax: Tone Poems Vol 2 / Handley, BBC PO

Release Date: 04/29/2008 
Label:  Chandos   Catalog #: 10446   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Arnold Bax
Conductor:  Vernon Handley
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 17 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

A magnificent survey from Bax's ardent champion plus a treasurable coupling

Vernon Handley (still no knighthood?) returns to his exploration of the Bax tone-poems with this sumptuous, majestic collection. Is it me, or are the sounds he can draw from orchestras ever more resplendent? It is almost as though he acquires more vigour with the passing years and the result here is a disc that bristles with energy and excitement. Marvellous.

-- Gramophone [6/2008]

Three Bax triples are presented on this disc: one is incomplete; one speculatively assembled and one exists by virtue of a certain generalised shared mood.

Read more incomplete ‘three’ is the Eire trilogy - not that the other works do not exist; it's just that Into the Twilight - or Twiglet as one wag insists - is the only representative here. In fact it is the first of the trilogy and is succeeded by In the Faery Hills (CHAN10362) and Roscatha (CHAN10157X). Bax unequivocally intended those works as a trilogy and gave the grouping a name: Eire. More contentious is the designation of the triple sequence of Northern Ballads. The ‘glue’ is their common vintage and similar style. The first two works were called by Bax ‘Northern Ballad’. The Third is actually titled Prelude for a Solemn Occasion but the short score is headed simply 'III'. Beyond that nothing; Never mind terminology though all these episodes are enjoyable. This is the first time they have been grouped sequentially on a commercial CD although each has been recorded separately before. Handley has played these before in this sequence with the BBC Concert Orchestra and they were broadcast as such in the 1990s. The final three are Nympholept, Red Autumn and The Happy Forest which share a lush pagan nature theme.

The first two Northern Ballads make excellent symphonic first and second movements while the third is a close miss. Handley takes an indomitable grip on the First and the result vies with Boult's glorious analogue first recording from the 1972 Lyrita sessions. Handley benefits from splendid crystalline transparent sound and silvery gleaming strings. This is music with a Scottish snap benefiting from, the gravelly bass thud and undertow of Bax’s Sixth Symphony. This is indeed Bax gone Northern. The first ballad is a gripping piece and it's wonderfully done - I am not at all sure I wouldn’t recommend listening to this before Tintagel and Fand if not before November Woods. It's a work of great concentration, drama and mercurial mood-swing.

The Second Northern Ballad is another unwaveringly concentrated piece which seems to draw sustenance from Tapiola and Isle of the Dead. It's brooding angry mood is very sustained and the music arches stirringly across a wide span of just over 14 minutes which is faster than Del Mar. It's played with all the vigour of maturity - no sign of any slackening from Handley - just as with his stingingly potent First and Second Symphonies from 2003. The mood in this Ballad has more in common with the Fifth Symphony which is also the kith and kin of the growlingly tense and relaxedly hymnal Third Ballad. The last section of Ballad 3 has that hint of the diffuseness of the Coronation March and the discursive pleasures of the Seventh Symphony so doubts and the rot were beginning to set in.

The only other commercial recording of Northern Ballad No. 2 is also on Chandos and involves the RPO conducted by Norman Del Mar. It shares a disc with the much earlier Swinburnian delights of Spring Fire. Neither the new recording nor the older one capture completely the potent tension derived from this score by Leslie Head and the Kensington Symphony Orchestra - vintage 1977, BBC Radio London. Even so Handley's reading, which was broadcast with the other works here in December 2006, is completely successful.

Nature is a unifying theme here. It arches across Nympholept and The Happy Forest and a work orchestrated by Graham Parlett from a two-piano score, Red Autumn. They are roughly contemporaneous being written 1912-14 and they flowing from the same vein as Spring Fire. This verdant, luxuriant wellspring is also tapped by Roussel in Symphony No. 1, and by Ludolf Nielsen (Forest Walk), Havergal Brian (Wine of Summer), Granville Bantock (Pagan Symphony) and Edward Burlingame Hill (Prelude). Nympholept has the bejewelled raindrop accent and wondrous translucency of Daphnis. The rearing up of a faery land, glimpsed in danger and made alluring by seduction rather than tame Victoriana can be felt in the gestural upheaval at 2:43 onwards. The recoding and performance are ideal and compare favourably with David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos. The luxury, hedonism and cruelty of Swinburne are reflected here. Red Autumn is only short but in its five minutes it takes its cue from November Woods and this reference returns at 3:37. That classic tone poem is a very strong presence in the opening pages of Red Autumn. Things then relax with writing that is redolent of RVW's Pastoral but with a dash of the Waltz - as in the Bax Violin Concerto. Graham Parlett has the Bax manner down to a tee and more than that has kept the orchestration in the Bax style of the 1920s. This is music of brooding groves and with a sense of something of dread in the shadows. There are, on the other hand, few shadows in The Happy Forest. This asserts a more relaxed mood with light cutting shafts through the forest ceiling. Glades are bright with the sun’s dazzle and nymphs and satyrs are at play. I ‘learnt’ this piece as I imagine many now in their fifties did, through Edward Downes’ RCA LP with the LSO (1969). While Downes’ Third Symphony was slackly put across the performance of this tone poem was spot-on. Handley here gives it a well chiselled rhythmic emphasis. His Bax never loses touch with the underlying pulse. There is however some magical relaxation here as in the moonlit clearing evoked in the andante musings of 4:12 onwards. The ostinato from 5:24 onwards, pecked out by the trumpet at pianissimo, does however seem just too fast to gain the fully telling emotional impact of this magical piece.

The trajectory of this sequence of tone poems proceeds backwards in time from 1934 to 1908. This brings us at last to Into the Twilight which began life as a prelude to an intended opera on the Deirdre legend; the short score ends with the words 'Curtain rises'. This is a lush piece yet one that is willowy in texture and is orchestrated with breathtaking transparency and even fragility. At 13:22 it's quite long for an operatic prelude but its impact as a moody-rhapsodic concert-piece is unmistakable.

I cannot speak too highly of this exemplary collection which for me goes straight to near the top of the Bax tone poems - discs on a level just one step down from Boult's November Woods.

-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Northern Ballad no 1 by Arnold Bax
Conductor:  Vernon Handley
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927-1931; England 
Length: 10 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Northern Ballad no 2 by Arnold Bax
Conductor:  Vernon Handley
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; England 
Length: 14 Minutes 10 Secs. 
Northern Ballad no 3 by Arnold Bax
Conductor:  Vernon Handley
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1932-1933; England 
Length: 8 Minutes 25 Secs. 
Nympholept by Arnold Bax
Conductor:  Vernon Handley
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912-1915; England 
Length: 15 Minutes 32 Secs. 
Red Autumn by Arnold Bax
Conductor:  Vernon Handley
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1931; England 
Length: 5 Minutes 10 Secs. 
Happy Forest by Arnold Bax
Conductor:  Vernon Handley
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914-1921; England 
Length: 9 Minutes 50 Secs. 
Into the Twilight by Arnold Bax
Conductor:  Vernon Handley
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1908; England 
Length: 13 Minutes 24 Secs. 

Featured Sound Samples

Three Northern Ballads: No 1: First Northern Ballad
The Happy Forest

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