Arnold Bax & Vernon Handley – RAM (10 October)

Symphony No.3
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47 *

Dominika Rosiek (violin)

Royal Academy of Music Concert Orchestra
Vernon Handley
Toby Purser *

Reviewed by: Graham Parlett

Reviewed: 10 October, 2003
Venue: Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

The concert that took place at the RAM on 10 October was the culmination of a week in which Arnold Bax’s alma mater commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of his death on 3 October 1953. He had been a student there (or rather at its former incarnation in Tenterden Street) from 1900 to 1905, and during the course of the week we were treated to recitals by present-day students of Bax’s chamber works, piano music, choral pieces, and songs (including some that had never been performed before). There was also a day-long symposium that included lectures by Michael Allis and Lewis Foreman and master-classes by Ian Partridge and the Maggini Quartet.

The final concert took place in front of a packed house that included the Duchess of Gloucester (President of the RAM), and its Principal, Professor Curtis Price, as well as many Academy students, most of whom were encountering Bax’s orchestral music in live performance for the first time. The conductor was Vernon Handley, who has probably played more works by British composers than any other conductor living or dead.

Handley has been a champion of Bax’s music for over forty years and knows the orchestral works inside out. His long years of experience certainly showed in his splendid interpretation of Tintagel, Bax’s best known and most frequently performed orchestral work. In his recent recording with the BBC Philharmonic, Handley takes a very broad view of the outer sections, but in this live performance his speeds were slightly faster, and yet there was no lessening of the sweep and grandeur that characterise this most opulent of sea pieces. The young players clearly revelled in Bax’s colourful instrumental writing and produced a glorious sound throughout.

After Tintagel, the young conductor Toby Purser took the podium for a fine performance of Sibelius’s ever-popular Violin Concerto, with the twenty-three-year-old Polish violinist Dominika Rosiek as the soloist. It was interesting to compare the conducting styles of the two conductors: Handley Boult-like in his use of minimal gestures, Purser more in the mould of the flamboyant Malcolm Sargent.

After the interval came a rare performance of Bax’s Third Symphony. Dennis Andrews, who recently presented the RAM with the holograph manuscript of Bax’s Sinfonietta, was in the audience and told me that the last time he had heard the work live he had been sitting next to the composer himself at a rehearsal in Bournemouth in 1951, when Rudolf Schwarz was preparing it for a concert. In fairness it should be said that the work has been played several times more recently than that, but I had certainly not heard it live in London for many years.

Handley takes a brisker view than most conductors of the opening pages, which begin with a bassoon solo announcing the principal motif that recurs throughout the score, and the tempo seemed even faster than in his recent BBC Philharmonic recording. This certainly suited the main ’Allegro moderato’ very well; Bax’s energetic writing came across with great power and clarity. That famous passage for five solo violins was beautifully managed, and if the exquisite string writing of the middle section could have been a little warmer, the difficult writing for horn came over very well. The return of the fast music was splendidly managed, though the culminating anvil stroke was, as usual, a little disappointing. In the new recording Handley and his engineers ensure that we hear a good resounding thwack rather than the usual tinkle, though I have always felt that a more resonant and metallic sound would really do the trick, or even a Mahlerian hammer stroke (as in that composer’s Sixth Symphony, for example). The coda was a little faster than in the new recording, and the final pages were tremendously exciting, with incisive playing and the whole orchestra going at it hammer and tongs.

The opening of the slow movement seemed a little too rushed for my taste. The horn solo was well enough managed, but the following passage with tremolando strings and viola solo sounded perfunctory (and the solo viola played a B flat in bar 8 instead of B natural – an error that also occurs in Bryden Thomson’s Chandos recording: an uncorrected mistake in the parts perhaps). The first trumpet had problems with his very difficult solo passage on the second page, but thereafter the playing was very good. The passages with high divided strings came across beautifully, as did that marvellous episode with horn solo accompanied by divided strings and celesta. The movement reached an exciting climax before returning to the stillness of the opening mood, with sensitive playing from the first bassoon.

The third movement opened, it seemed to me, even more effectively than in Handley’s recent recording, thanks to the crisp, rhythmic playing of the tenor drum; on the recording the instrument is not so audible and the rhythm less pointed. This movement is full of tempo changes – ’poco tenuto’, ’poco più moderato’, ’meno mosso’, and so on – which should indicate changes of mood rather than speed, and I am glad that Handley also took this view; in lesser hands the movement can sound irritatingly jerky.

The epilogue was very well done, with some fine woodwind playing and a beautiful violin solo near the end. A pity about the cracked horn note on the last page; but no matter: the ending was beautifully managed, and the final bars made their full effect as the work came to its tranquil conclusion with that same figure that had been heard on the bassoon at the very opening.

Listening to Bax’s rich and intricate orchestral textures live was an exciting experience, and inevitably it was possible to hear details that are not always apparent in even the clearest of recordings. It was also good to hear these young Academy players tackling the music of one of their most distinguished predecessors. As someone remarked during the week, these youngsters were coming to the music free of the baggage of previous generations (I am thinking of the 1950s and ’60s), that viewed it as being old-fashioned. With youthful playing of such high quality, the future of Bax’s music should be in safe hands.

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