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 Recording of the Week  Andrew Davis conducts orchestral works by Bax

A disc of firsts and lasts this week, with a new CD of orchestral works by Arnold Bax, conducted by Andrew Davis and featuring the BBC Philharmonic. It happens to be the last instalment in Chandos's project to record the complete orchestral works of Bax, and is also the first time Andrew Davis has recorded a disc of Bax's music.

More than that, though, it contains a premiere recording, namely of the Four Orchestral Pieces. First performed in March 1914, the pieces were then apparently forgotten about, and were specially edited and prepared from the manuscripts for this recording. Typically for Bax, the four pieces have wonderfully evocative titles: Pensive Twilight, Dance in the Sun, From the Mountains of Home, and The Dance of Wild Irravel.

Andrew Davis
Andrew Davis

I think my favourite movements are the first and third, being the more lyrical ones of the set. Pensive Twilight in particular has some beautifully sweeping moments, and Davis draws some delightfully husky sounds from the strings, perfectly conjuring up twilight. Similarly, in From the Mountains of Home, there's a majestic flow to the piece that could easily make one think it was the slow movement of a lost Elgar symphony!

The set finishes with the aforementioned Dance of Wild Irravel, an energetic waltz that seems to look forward to Ravel's La Valse of a few years later (I'm also convinced I heard a nod to the waltz from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in there fairly early on!). It makes for a highly spirited conclusion to this set of pieces, and the BBC Philharmonic perform magnificently and effortlessly throughout, sounding as if they have had this music in their repertoire for years!

They are joined by violist Philip Dukes for the Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra, a piece written for the celebrated English viola player, Lionel Tertis. Dukes's tone is quite lovely: rich and full in the lower register, confident and singing up top. The slow movement, Lento semplice, is really quite exquisite, and shows Bax's great gift for composing long, soaring melodies. Bax had a great affinity for Ireland, visiting there extensively, and this movement in particular seems to me like an extended lilting folksong. It's very beautiful, and shows off the wonderful capabilities of the viola as a solo instrument.

Bax's Irish affection is shown even further in the final movement, which briefly quotes the opening phrase from a melody known as “The Soldier's Song” (the chorus of this song was later to become the Irish national anthem). As in the Orchestral Pieces, the BBC players are on top form, and Davis makes for the most persuasive advocate of this music.

The final piece on the disc is also the latest work chronologically, the Overture, Elegy, and Rondo from 1927. I seem to be drawn to Bax's slow movements, as my favourite part is the central Elegy, which features a dolorous lament for trombones and tuba, with some expert playing from the BBC brass.

Overall, then, I must say what a pleasant surprise this disc has turned out to be. I've very much enjoyed listening to all three pieces several times. Of course, with the allure of a previously-unrecorded work, it will be of great interest to Bax aficionados, but I hope that all lovers of English music will want to explore this disc, and will delight in its many musical treasures!

Sir Arnold Bax: Four Orchestral Pieces & Phantasy

Philip Dukes (viola), BBC Philharmonic, Sir Andrew Davis

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC