Bax 50th Anniversary Concert – BBCPO/Handley (3 September)

Overture – Rogue’s Comedy
Symphony No.1 in E flat
Symphony No.6

BBC Philharmonic
Vernon Handley

Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd

Reviewed: 3 September, 2003
Venue: Studio 7 Concert Hall, New Broadcasting House, Oxford Road, Manchester

Anyone who knows anything about Vernon Handley will know of his absolute devotion to the music of Arnold Bax. Handley made his professional debut with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with Bax’s Sixth Symphony, and his first recording was the Fourth Symphony, with the Guildford Philharmonic. The Sixth also formed part of Handley’s 70th-birthday concert in Liverpool in 2000. Handley has conducted Bax many times, observing with some pride that he has probably conducted the symphonies more often than any other conductor. He has long expressed a wish to record them.

This studio concert in Manchester was given to commemorate the 50th-anniversary of Bax’s death (not his centenary as I heard Nicholas Kenyon say, on air, at least twice). The performance of the Rogue’s Comedy Overture was either the first in forty years, according to Piers Burton-Page’s talking programme note, or in twenty-five years, according to Lewis Foreman overheard afterwards. It’s inclusion here is evidence of Handley’s determination to do whatever he can for Bax’s music. The overture is an entertaining, if slightly undistinctive 12 minutes’ worth, a useful concert opener, boisterous, even brash, but a trifle short on real comedy (the title comes from a play Bax may have seen in, or least remembered from, his early years in London). The BBC Philharmonic certainly let into it with great enthusiasm.

The two symphonies are much sterner stuff. One of the qualities of Bax which most appeals to Handley is his grasp of form and symphonic structure, which is what most other conductors and commentators find missing. I’ve certainly heard the symphonies described more than once as “sprawling”, which on the evidence of these performances is distinctly unjustified.

I find the First Symphony still quite a struggle – to find a way through Bax’s quite dense soundworld and to follow his thematic and rhythmic organisation is not easy. Although when the work is given with the force and conviction as here, the overall shape is easier to grasp. The BBC Philharmonic threw itself into the symphony, grasping both the wild outburst of the opening and the complex emotions of the slow movement, at once both angry and elegiac. The horn section in particular distinguished itself in the turbulent finale.

Handley believes that the Sixth Symphony is a masterpiece, perhaps still a minority view, but when given with this level of insight, conviction and passion it is very hard not to be won over – this music was firmly in my mind’s ear on the train home the following morning.

Studio 7, for those who don’t know it, is a small space with barely eight rows or audience seats, though with a very high ceiling, and the orchestra is right in your face, so much so that it’s sometimes quite hard to grasp the overall sound-picture. Having never heard the Sixth Symphony live before, I found it simply overwhelming, from the bleak introduction right through to the complex finale with it’s unexpectedly quiet resolution and farewell. One problem with Bax performances is that conductors and orchestras, unfamiliar with the music, have tended to allow themselves far too much time to wallow in the gorgeous tones while losing sight of direction – one reason perhaps for Bax’s unjustified reputation for sprawl.

This performance had no wallow with Handley maintaining a fierce momentum. He noted afterwards that the BBC Philharmonic is now so familiar with the idiom that he can really drive the music forward, which does so much to highlight rhythmic intensity. Performed like this one can hear immediately why Bax 6 was considered a match for Vaughan Williams’s contemporary Fourth Symphony.

A special mention to first horn Jonathan Goodall and first clarinet John Bradbury, the latter’s expressive solo opened the 6th’s finale. For all the impressive quality of the BBC Philharmonic, the evening belonged to Handley who was warmly and enthusiastically applauded. Handley, in turn, would say that the evening belonged to Bax.

The good news is that Handley and the BBC Philharmonic have recorded all the Bax Symphonies, the two in this concert were being given studio recordings over the following two days. Radio 3 will broadcast all the performances in the week leading up to the 50th-anniversary of Bax’s death, beginning on Monday 29 September. This concert is broadcast on the evening of Friday 3 October, the exact anniversary. Chandos will release the symphonies in a 4-CD box during October. Not resting on these impressive laurels, on the evening of the 3rd, Handley will be in Belfast directing the Ulster Orchestra in Bax’s Violin Concerto. The question remains, why on earth couldn’t Handley have conducted, with the BBC Phil, a Bax symphony at the Proms?

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