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

In Appreciation – David Lloyd-Jones

by Ben Hogwood

This week we have learned the sad news of the death of conductor David Lloyd-Jones, at the age of 87. David was instrumental in founding Opera North in 1978, and there is a heartfelt tribute on their website in his honour.

While Lloyd-Jones was a highly respected opera conductor, I have chosen to focus on his many and pioneering recordings of English music by way of a tribute. These include extensive surveys of the orchestral music of Stanford (including a symphony cycle), Alwyn, Bliss, Rawsthorne and Arnold Bax, including another survey of his symphonies, and Holst – with an important disc of his orchestral music released in 1998. Here is just a hint of his discography for Naxos, with highlights from some very impressive recordings:

In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: Trios for flute, viola and harp (Marie-Christine Zupancic, David BaMaung & Katherine Thomas)

Instrument-detail-Neil-Pugh

Bax Elegiac Trio GP178 (1916)
Weinberg
Trio Op.127 (1979)
Debussy
Sonata for flute, viola and harp L137 (1915)

Members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra [Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute), David BaMaung (viola), Katherine Thomas (harp)]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Thursday 18 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although little more than a century old, the enticing combination of flute, viola and harp has since given rise to a host of stylistically varied pieces – three of which were featured in this Centre Stage lunchtime recital by members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

If not the most elaborate of his numerous works for mixed ensemble, Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio is surely among his most affecting as a (deliberately?) understated ‘in memoriam’ for those friends who had died as a result of the ill-fated Easter Uprising in Ireland. While the underlying mood rarely moves too far from that implied by the title, the close-knit motivic writing and subtly shifting emotions which are filtered through the textural ‘weave’ prove    as subtle as they are elusive – not least in a performance as focussed or as assured as this.

His extensive chamber output might be dominated by his 17 string quartets, but Mieczysław Weinberg wrote numerous pieces for sundry combinations – of which the present Trio could be considered typical of his spare and elusive later idiom. As in other works from this period, descriptions are replaced by metronome markings, endowing the music with an inscrutability as leaves the musicians to convey more tangible expression – whether in an initial movement that uncovers its formal trajectory as it brings these instruments into play, a central movement whose fragmentary textures never quite evolve into cohesive exchanges, then a finale whose vigorous rhythmic motion is tersely curtailed almost out of spite. An insightful account of an absorbing piece, especially when not given in its alternative version with piano replacing harp.

A recital such as this almost had to close with the Sonata by Debussy that will likely remain the template for this ensemble. Here, the opening Pastorale seemed a little too restive fully to convey this music’s ethereal emotion, but the Interlude found an ideal balance between incisiveness and elegance whose minuet-like gait belies its almost intuitive unfolding, while the Finale drew all three instruments into an inexorable motion through to the decisive close – the composer asserting his credentials as ‘musicien français’ with pointed understatement.

An appealing and not a little thought-provoking recital for which Marie-Christine Zupancic, David BaMaung and Katherine Thomas placed those present in their debt. The Centre Stage series continues on December 3rd, with a programme from the CBSO Percussion Ensemble.

Further information on future CBSO Stage concerts can be found here

On record – Aurora Trio: Crépuscule (EM Records)

crepuscule

Alwyn Two Folk Tunes (1936). Crépuscule (1955). Naïades (1971)
Bax Elegiac Trio (1916)
Lewis Divertimento (1982)
Lipkin Trio (1982)
Patterson Canonic Lullaby (2016)
Rawsthorne Suite (1968)

Aurora Trio [Emma Halnan (flute), Jordan Sian (viola), Heather Wrighton (harp)]

EM Records EMRCD069 [76’52”]

Producer Tom Hammond
Engineer John Croft

Recorded 15-16 February, 13 August 2020 at St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Aurora Trio makes its debut for EM Records in a collection of British music featuring flute, viola and harp that spans exactly 100 years and encompasses a variety of approaches with regards to the combining of these distinct yet undeniably complementary instruments.

What’s the music like?

If not the most elaborate of his numerous works for ensemble, Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio is among his most affecting as an in-memoriam for those friends who died in the course of the Easter Uprising in Ireland. Although the overall mood rarely moves far from that implied by the title, the undulating emotion filtering through the textural ‘weave’ proves as subtle as it is elusive. Scored for just flute and harp, William Alwyn’s Naïades unfolds on a larger scale and inhabits a wider range of expression as it evokes both the eponymous spirits of antiquity and the environs of the Suffolk village of Blythburgh where it was written, while also being    a ‘fantasy sonata’ whose instruments interact with more than a little improvisatory freedom.

By contrast, the Suite that Alan Rawsthorne wrote for the Robles Trio is typical of his later music in its harmonic astringency and oblique while never abstruse tonal follow-through. A highly personal use of serial elements underpins the elegant opening Andantino as surely as it does a graceful, intermezzo-like Allegretto then the more demonstrative Allegro vigoroso. All these other works are here receiving their first recordings. Alwyn’s Crépuscule for harp offers a foretaste of that masterly concerto Lyra Angelica in its ethereal poise, whereas his Two Folk Tunes emerges as an appealingly contrasted duo – viola and harp as ruminatively combined in Meditation as they are animatedly juxtaposed in Who’ll buy my besoms?

The highlight is undoubtedly the Trio by Malcolm Lipkin, a composer yet to receive his due and who, as the present work affirms, was unafraid to elide between tradition and innovation with strikingly personal results – whether in the terse emotional contrasts of its Variations, tense and increasingly soulful inwardness of its Intermezzo or purposeful onward progress of a Finale whose impetus subsides towards the pensively fatalistic coda. Canonic Lullaby has Paul Patterson bring flute and harp into limpid accord, while Paul Lewis’s Divertimento puts all three instruments through their paces in a lively March, before embracing them in the lyrical Love Song then cordially sending them on their way in the nonchalant Waltz.

Does it all work?

Yes, given the relative stylistic range of the music featured and, moreover the quality of these performances. Care has evidently been taken to assemble the eight works into a cohesive and satisfying sequence such as this ensemble might tackle at one of its recitals, and which flows well as an overall programme. The playing leaves nothing to be desired in terms of accuracy, while the relative personality of each composer cannot be gainsaid. Ideally the release would encourage composers from the middle and younger generations to write for this combination.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The recording is excellent, with the frequently awkward balance between instruments expertly judged, and there are detailed annotations on both the works and their composers. It all adds up to a worthwhile release which deserves to be followed up, hopefully on this label.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the EM Records website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more on the Aurora trio, you can visit their website

In concert – Michael Collins & Michael McHale: Widor, Bax, Muczynski & Horovitz @ Wigmore Hall

collins-mchale

Michael Collins (clarinet), Michael McHale (piano)

Widor Introduction et Rondo Op.72 (1898)
Bax Clarinet Sonata in D major (1934)
Muczynski Time Pieces Op.43 (1984)
Horovitz Sonatina (1981)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a joy to see audiences back in Wigmore Hall on a Monday lunchtime, as the venue took its first available opportunity of 2021. The gathering was for an enterprising program of 20th century works for clarinet and piano from Michael Collins and Michael McHale, pleasingly off the beaten track in its selection and proving highly accessible.

Viewed online in this case, the excitement was palpable – from Andrew McGregor’s introduction for the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 to the performers’ demeanour as they began. The clarinetist successfully overcame an instrument malfunction, too, which caused him to repeat the first few minutes of the Bax sonata.

Collins and McHale began with Widor, however, a competition piece written for students of the Paris Conservatoire in 1898. Both performers settled immediately, Collins with a beautifully floated introduction and McHale with sensitive pedaling, the pianist then echoing the excitable flourishes from of clarinet when the Rondo itself arrived. This work occupies a happy place in Widor’s output, and was a joyful overture here.

The mood deepened for the Clarinet Sonata in D major of Sir Arnold Bax from 1934. First performed by Frederick Thurston, it is an unusually structured work, but the two movements sit together nicely. It was during the beautifully floated opening that Collins had to change his clarinet, but the advantage of this was that we were able to marvel at his control for a second time, supported by rippling figures from McHale. The first movement unfolded as though in one long phrase, revealing the influence of Wagner but establishing Bax’s own melodic grace too. The second movement had impressive urgency, with chromatic surges from the piano and impressive breath control from Collins. A typically deep second theme was matched by a lovely, poised closing section.

The Polish-American composer Robert Muczynski has an intriguing works list including many pieces for woodwind, and the Time Pieces of 1984 are among his most-performed. Each of the four movements looks to bring out different qualities of the clarinet and Collins was fully alive to their possibilities. The busy first piece was enjoyable, clarinet and piano ducking and diving in their interplay, while time became suspended in the outer sections of the second piece, lost in thought. The third explored the timbres of the solo clarinet, wonderfully nuanced by Collins, while the spicy dialogue of the fourth was laden with syncopation and brilliantly played.

The Sonatina for clarinet and piano from Joseph Horovitz dates from 1981, when it was first performed by Gervase de Peyer and Gwenneth Pryor in the Wigmore Hall itself. Like Muczynski, Horovitz is at home writing for wind and brass. Working within a compressed structure, the Sonatina was packed with incident and melody. A perky first movement unfolded with easy, winsome phrases, while the second was more introspective and took time for soul searching. Not so the finale, whose offbeat japes were carefree and witty in this performance, instinctively played.

It was over all too soon – but we were treated to an encore, Collins every bit as enthused as the audience. The warm-hearted Summer, from Paul Reade’s suite Victorian Kitchen Garden, was the ideal choice.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.