Arnold Bax Tone Poems – Vernon Handley

0 of 5 stars

In The Faery Hills
November Woods
The Garden of Fand

BBC Philharmonic
Vernon Handley

Recorded on 20 & 21 April 2005 in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester

Reviewed by: Michael Quinn

Reviewed: June 2006
Duration: 76 minutes

On musical terms alone, there is little to fault these vividly shaped and vibrantly delivered trio of tone poems – all written within eight years of each other and all determinedly staring in another, distracted and fantastical direction as Edwardian England blithely assembled its young men for the sole purpose of slaughtering them in the carnage of the so-called ‘Great War’ (World War I) – and the Sinfonietta, its outward virility giving way to something darker, as if, from its 1932 vantage point, it foresaw the horrors of what was about to come hurtling over the horizon.

Vernon Handley is the quintessential Bax interpreter, equally at home with the evocative but cod-‘Oirish’ inflections of In the Faery Hills as with the magically and magnificently robust but tellingly poignant seascapes of The Garden of Fand – “The last”, said Bax, “of my Irish music” – and this disc, complete with the rarely heard Sinfonietta offers an enjoyable punctuation mark to Handley’s magnificent survey of Bax’s symphonies (also with the BBC Philharmonic and also for Chandos) in 2003.

This is only the second recording of the Sinfonietta and it is by far the better account. The other, with Barry Wordsworth leading an under-powered Slovak Philharmonic, dates from 1987 (originally on Marco Polo and now available on Naxos) and had, until now, the benefit of novelty value. Handley’s obvious conviction that it is a better piece than even the composer himself seems to have thought, is heartfelt and, on the whole, persuasive – and not least in the sumptuously romantic middle movement.

The BBC Philharmonic delivers value-for-money performances of the three tone poems, though they take their place in a contested catalogue. Bryden Thomson’s mid-1980s’ coupling of The Garden of Fand with November Woods, The Happy Forest and Summer Music with the Ulster Orchestra on Chandos takes some beating, and sentiment alone doesn’t benefit Handley here. And Bax’s earlier champion on disc, Sir Adrian Boult, provides distinctive readings for Lyrita with the London Phiharmonic of November Woods (1967) and The Garden of Fand alongside the mighty Tintagel (both from 1972) that are well worth investigating.

Recorded sound is up to usual Chandos standards and frames Handley’s articulate and deeply felt interpretations to telling effect.

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