Mysterious and enchanted, the first of the Four Orchestral Pieces (1912-13), ‘Pensive Twilight’, enjoys an Elgarian wistfulness before blossoming into summer reverie and rapture. It’s all wonderfully open-air before sinking down to the nocturnal reflection that the title intimates. Delius is also suggested, but Bax is Bax and this first recording of the Pieces is to be welcomed. A healthy twirling informs ‘Dance in the Sun’, full of whimsical outlines and delightful detail. By contrast ‘From the Mountains of Home’ is deeply felt and nostalgic, scored for sonorous and solo strings, and the finale, ‘The Dance of Wild Irravel’, is darker and edgier – marked by Bax as “Fast valse measure. Very rhythmical” – and keeping the listener eager to hear what happens next. It’s difficult to imagine a finer introduction to this quartet of Pieces (three of which Bax revised and re-titled as ‘Evening Piece’, ‘Irish Landscape’ and ‘Dance in the Sunlight’: aka Three Pieces for Small Orchestra) than here, Andrew Davis as sympathetic a Baxian as were his Chandos predecessors Bryden Thomson and Vernon Handley.
At the other end of the disc is Overture, Elegy and Rondo (1927), composed between the Second and Third Symphonies, and dedicated to Eugene Goossens, although it was Henry Wood who led the first performance and John Barbirolli the second. The work opens with coiled-up energy, the music troubled and angular with orchestration brash and striking, such turbulence continuing to underpin the slower and quieter middle section. The central Elegy is initially solemn and exploits brass-writing that reminds of the funereal close of Mahler 6, before some sort of evolving catharsis becomes apparent and leads to recollection through tranquillity. The closing Rondo is the happiest music here, maybe a medieval masque, if with Bax still pursuing harder sounds and rhythms, and when a slower section emerges, there is a brooding quality that suggests that the composer was distancing himself from romance and any description that could be called captivating: fascinatingly so.
The disc’s centrepiece is the 20-minute Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra (1920), written for Lionel Tertis, and originally designated a concerto. Bax changed the title before the second performance, and indeed Phantasy suits this rhapsodic and suggestive work well. Outgoing and passionate, Irish allusions to the fore, this is music that frees the imagination to wander where it might and for the listener to be transported in the dreamy central section – lovely stuff – before the leprechauns issue an invitation to first dance and then sing in the finale. Philip Dukes is a fabulous soloist, the recording capturing his every move without spotlighting and affording the orchestra its every nook and cranny.
With Brian Pidgeon and Mike George producing, Stephen Rinker engineering (marvellous sound) and Lewis Foreman in charge of the informative booklet note, then all is well with this latest Chandos release of music by London-born, Ireland-loving, Celtic-fascinated Arnold Bax (1883-1953); indeed it is recommended with total enthusiasm and without any reservation.