Greetings everyone. I'm trying to post whenever possible and these days 'whenever possible' is sadly not very much. Indeed my catharsis is mostly stifled, especially unhealthy for one who professes to need music more than oxygen or sleep! So, I squeeze it in where I can and it's high time for some squeezing right now. I have loved the music of Arnold Bax for as long as I can remember and his tone poems especially have a certain glowing magic to them; replete with the scents and sounds of far away places, whether geographically inspired and tangible, or summoned by legend and the pen. Close your eyes whilst listening deeply and you might just feel the sea mist upon your face or the winds blowing. Bax was not only one of the great symphonists but one of the finest 'tone-painters' the world has known. Any real Baxian (or lover of British music in general) should and will likely already own this gem of a recording or, has been searching for it. The search then, happily closes with this post :) As magnificent as the tone poems are (there are technically more than 18 of them) there are only so many different choices as far as recordings go, as many are out-of-print (especially some greats from the 60's and 70's) and hard for current collectors to track down. Happily the discs that do exist are simply excellent and are rather complete series (Chandos and Naxos being the two important major sources) of Bax's poems (as in musical-Bax was also a poet, and he used the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne for this area of expression) and other orchestral works. Other labels have made fine contributions as well, such as EMI, Dutton, Classico, even Marco Polo (I have the MP but cannot recall off hand which works they contain) etc.
Bax wrote so much excellent music, that no two compilations of his tone poems need to be alike. However, at least two other discs offer alternative performances of the "big three" tone poems- "The Garden of Fand", "Tintagel" and "November Woods" -to those gathered here. David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos adds to this mighty triumvirate the later Sibelian tone poem, "The Tale the Pine Trees Knew", on his competing disc. As mentioned above Chandos has also been key, in fact they are the most significant and complete purveyor of Baxian treasure. Bryden Thomson stakes serious claim in this territory. His Bax symphony cycle is incredible. His disc of "the big three", coupled with "Summer Music", is a must-have recording, as are the other orchestral works. Then there's Vernon Handley's equally magnificent discs of Bax's tone poems and orchestral music also on Chandos. If you want to be a nutcase completist like I am, you could also opt to get the box set of the complete symphonies released in 2003 which also includes "Rogue's Comedy Overture" and Tintagel, which is only available (this particular version of Tintagel) in this set with Handley conducting. And I won't even get into the chamber music recordings, although I will add that Hyperion too has this area nicely covered, their releases with the Nash Ensemble being second-to-none (I equally love Bax's chamber music!!).
The first of the big three tone poems is "The Garden of Fand", an evocation of the sea that dates from Bax's early fascination with all things Irish. It is, according to the composer, "entirely enveloped in the atmosphere of the calm Atlantic off the Western shores of Ireland and the enchanted islands of which some of the country people still dream". Certainly the elusive sound-world is entirely evocative of magic and mystery (Bax thought of it as his last overtly Celtic work). It is dedicated to Frederick Stock, who conducted the premiere in Chicago in October 1920 (the first British account was under the present conductor, Sir Adrian Boult, just over a year later). The "Garden of Fand" of the title is actually the sea and in some ways this is the British "La mer". Boult captures the swelling of the sea perfectly-this impression is progressively heightened as the piece progresses. Though richly scored, its fabric is delicate. Lloyd-Jones and Boult pace this tone poem similarly, and neither conductor wallows in the detail of this luscious music. (Lloyd-Jones, however, seems to find more forward momentum and presents the score in long instrumental lines) Boult, who gave this score its British premiere, is more episodic in his approach and allows the orchestration to speak for itself. Boult's ensemble achieves a clarity of texture that makes his argument so easy to follow. His tempo fluctuation is quite pronounced and he pushes forward, then drawing back for Bax's big, swirling string melodies.
"Tintagel" is probably Bax's most popular work, and the entry point to his oeuvre for many a listener. A castle-crowned cliff in Cornwall, "Tintagel" was composed in a passionate blur after Bax and his mistress, the pianist Harriet Cohen, ran away to Cornwall in 1917. His own romantic situation, the dramatic Cornish coastline and the majestic ruins of Tintagel castle sparked resonances for Bax with his beloved Wagner's 'Tristan ind Isolde' which of course is based on an ancient Cornish legend and is as Celtic a love story as you will find. This tone poem, part sea picture, part evocation of dimly remembered heraldry, was the intoxicating result. As with The Garden of Fand, Debussy's "La Mer" is an obvious influence, and there are also touches of Wagner-not least some thematic references to Tristan. This music, though, is unmistakably the work of Bax and of no other composer. Masterpiece.
For seasoned Baxians, Boult's "November Woods" is particularly essential. November Woods is highly evocative music, scored with the hand of a master. It is incredible to think that the present recording was made in 1967, so life-like is the presence of the orchestra. "November Woods" was written not long after Tintagel was first sketched out, but its mood is much darker. There are those who see this tone poem as Bax's comment on the Great War. The musical allusions in the score pointed out by Lewis Foreman in his excellent liner notes certainly seem to support this view. Boult's performance of November Woods is the most brooding and atmospheric that one is likely to ever hear. Boult elicits fabulous playing from the London Philharmonic, and there's no trace of routine here, and the brass and whooping horns are really magnificent.
Two lesser-known pieces begin this disc, the "Northern Ballad No. 1" and "Mediterranean".
Bax wrote three "Northern Ballads" but, none of them have really gained much currency, the reason being a mystery really. The sound-world of the Ballad No. 1 is immediately Baxian, but the orchestral textures are leaner and the colouring more precise than in the earlier works. This tightly constructed work is clearly informed by Bax's experience as a symphonist. There is more Sibelius than Debussy in the mix this time and the thematic material has a pronounced Scotch snap. This performance features especially stellar contributions from the brass. "Mediterranean" is a very short work that began life as a piano solo. It is dedicated to Gustav Holst and builds up a predominantly Spanish atmosphere to perfection. Boult’s timing of the Spanish rhythmic inflections is, perhaps surprisingly given his reputation for English music, near-perfect. Sir Adrian’s radiant belief in Bax’s music shines through every note on this disc. What could be better than three of Bax’s finest compositions (the tone poems) in performances and recordings that can only be described as resplendent?