On record – Jeremy Huw Williams & Paula Fan – From The Hills of Dream: The Forgotten Songs of Arnold Bax (EM Records)

bax-songs

Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone), Paula Fan (piano)

Bax
The Grand Match (1903). To my Homeland (1904). Leaves, Shadows and Dreams. Viking-Battle-Song (1905). I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden. The Twa Corbies (both 1906). Longing. From the Hills of Dream (both 1907). Landskab (1908). Marguerite (1909). Das tote Kind (1911). Welcome, Somer. Of her Mercy (both 1914). A Leader (1916). The Splendour Falls (1917). Le Chant d’Isabeau. A Rabelaisian Catechism (both 1920). Carrey Clavel (1925) – all world premiere recordings

EM Records EMRCD073 [77’56”]

Producer Jeremy Huw Williams Engineer Wiley Ross

Recorded 13, 14, 16, 22 & 23 October 2020 at Jeff Haskell Recording Studio; 13 November 2020 at Jim Brady Recording Studios, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

EM Records continues its coverage of lesser-known (or the lesser-known music of) English composers in an extensive survey of ‘forgotten’ songs by Arnold Bax, of which only a few were publicly performed in his lifetime with several of them first heard as recently as 2018.

What’s the music like?

Although he is best known for his symphonies and tone poems, songs with piano occupy a not unimportant place in Bax’s output – particularly over his formative years. This selection unfolds chronologically – opening with a lively setting of Moira O’ Neil’s The Grand Match, then continuing pensively with Stephen Gwynn’s To My Homeland in which Bax’s love of Irish culture was first manifest. Two settings of ‘Fiona Macleod’ (aka William Sharp) – the evocative Leaves, Shadows and Dreams, then the (would-be) heroics of Viking-Battle-Song – precede a ravishing take on Percy Shelley’s I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden, before The Twa Corbies finds Bax experimenting (not always successfully) with recitation in this traditional text. Two further settings of Macleod – the poised elegance of Longing, then the searching inwardness of From the Hills of Dream – lead on to this composer’s only treatment of a text in Danish, that of Landskab (Landscape) by Jens Peter Jacobsen, whose three manuscripts imply syntactical problems never adequately resolved despite the music’s gentle eloquence.

Bax set four texts by William Morris, among which the warmly expressive Marguerite went (surprisingly) unheard until now. The sombre symbolism of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s Das tote Kind is underplayed despite being in the original German, and two rondels by Geoffrey Chaucer – the wistful charm of Welcome, Somer then deft humour of Of her Mercy – exude sentiments to which he is more attuned. This is even more evident in A Leader, a setting of George Russell’s poem that underlines Bax’s emotional involvement with those issues and persons of Ireland’s ill-fated Easter Uprising that ranks among the composer’s finest songs. Few are likely to prefer his dogged setting of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Splendour Falls to that by Britten (or the Delius part-song), whereas the traditional Le Chant d’Isabeau has appealing winsomeness. A Rabelaisian Catechism is a salacious take on another traditional text, with a little help from Vaughan Williams and Wagner, while Carrey Clavel matches Thomas Hardy’s wry observation of scorned love to a tee and makes for a delightful close.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. Almost from the outset, Bax was an inventive but also interventionist setter of texts, such that the poet’s sentiments are not necessarily those conveyed in his songs. This might explain why he increasingly eschewed the genre once he had found his true metier in orchestral and chamber media, so that there are very few songs from the mid-1920s onwards. That said, the literary range of what Bax did set as well as the expressive range of his settings ensures his contribution is a notable one and is enhanced by those songs featured on this disc.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least through the advocacy of Jeremy Huw Williams whose unstinting advocacy is underpinned by Paula Fan’s perceptive accompaniment. The extensive booklet notes are by the Bax authority Graham Parlett, to whose memory this release is appropriately dedicated.

Listen and Buy

To listen to excerpts from this disc and view purchase options, visit the EM Records website. To read more about Arnold Bax, visit his dedicated composer website, and for more on the performers, click on the names of Jeremy Huw Williams and Paula Fan. Finally for more information on the English Music Festival, click here