Idylle de Printemps
North Country Sketches – IV: The March of Spring
Sir Mark Elder
Recorded in Manchester – March (Bax) & October 2010 (Idylle) in The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; and June 2010 in BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: March 2011
CD No: HALLÉ CD HLL 7528
Duration: 75 minutes
The impressionistic haze and burgeoning expression that opens Arnold Bax’s Spring Fire (1913) immediately conjures images in the listener’s mind of landscape – sometimes shadowy, sometimes enchanted – as one becomes ever-more enveloped in the music’s Romantic spirit and vibrant scoring. This is a Pagan Spring, one cued for Bax by his reading of Swinburne’s poem “Atalanta in Calydon”, his response being hedonistic outbursts alongside luxuriant long lines all couched in an extravagant use of a very large orchestra, yet with magical contrasts afforded by passages of great delicacy and in-the-gloaming suggestiveness. Over its (here) 33-minute course, one is drawn into vivid evocation, many beautiful and tranquil passages, and delirious celebration, and also made aware of the score’s symphonic underbelly. Older readers may have fond memories of Norman Del Mar conducting Spring Fire at a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert something like thirty years ago, and it’s good to have a second recording of Spring Fire, particularly as Mark Elder’s conception is more expansive than Vernon Handley’s tauter 1986 version for Chandos, and, as such, they complement each other very well. Spring Fire is no one-off for Elder, for he conducted it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a few years ago.
Delius’s Idylle de Printemps (1889) is quite conventional in its picturesque suggestion of blue skies, balmy breezes and the contentment of a sunny day, yet no less rapturous; coming very early in its composer’s output, but not performed until a century after its composition, one might cite Chausson as the creator. With its harmonic and expressional shifts, the much-more characteristic ‘The March of Spring’ (taken from North Country Sketches, 1914) is that more personal, although it seems a shame to excerpt from a through-composed piece, written when in France, Delius reminiscing about his days in Yorkshire. Even so, this last section appears rather lacking in spring-like processional; for all its loveliness, there seems apprehension, even pessimism, maybe because World War One was kicking-off as Delius was writing. Yet a comparison with Sir Charles Groves’s EMI recording (of the complete work) finds him knocking a couple of minutes from Elder’s timing as well as bringing more lilt and direction; Elder though uncovers greater nostalgic yearning, which also seems appropriate.
Finally, Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring (1927), an English yet rather continental essay in musical description – Bridge alive and receptive to what was ‘happening’ to music in Europe at the time, the opening bars somewhat Scriabinesque, and what follows alive with a feeling of experimentalism, albeit fully formed, and with orchestration at once seasoned yet fresh. This is music inexplicit and physical as well as forward-looking (in every sense), so that the turn of the new season, when introduced it is both cradled and pivotal, is an exquisite moment (wonderfully brought off here) and which leads to a clamorous conclusion that is thrillingly inevitable. (In comparison, and despite his cinematic relish, Bax can’t quite sustain his vision in Spring Fire without seeming to add-on the final section and somewhat conventionalise it.) The Hallé and Mark Elder give a marvellous account of Enter Spring, as free and as organised as the music demands. As the 14-year-old Benjamin Britten noted at the time of the first performance – which Bridge conducted, music that Britten himself would command many years later – Enter Spring is a “riot of harmony and colour”.
Using two venues, Spring Fire and Idylle de Printemps are taken from concerts, the other works made under studio conditions. The live (Bridgewater Hall) recordings are lucid enough in a rather reverberant setting (on the night Spring Fire was enthusiastically received by the audience), the BBC-hosted sessions being more dynamic and tangible. This is a notable release, the Hallé in magnificent form, its strings lustrous and pliable, and secure in the very highest registers. The booklet lists the Hallé’s personnel – a nice touch – but whether the 82 string-players credited (from 25 First Violins down to 12 double basses) are featured altogether on any one piece is another matter (the Bax and Bridge could certainly demand them though). Whatever, these are but statistics, for artistically this is a release that offers much-needed top-drawer advocacy for underestimated music.