Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Sinfonietta Overture, Elegy and Rondo
Arnold Edward Trevor Bax was born in a south London suburbin November 1883. When he was twelve his parents moved to a rambling mansioncalled 'Ivy Bank' in the leafy north London suburb of Hampstead and this housewith its extensive gardens provided a protected background for the developmentof the affluent young Bax brothers. Sixteen years their father's junior, theirmother dominated the development of Arnold and his brother Clifford Bax (thelatter went on to achieve celebrity between the wars as a writer andplaywright).
The brothers had no need to earn their own living and -while not lavish in their tastes - they pursued their artistic aspirations freeof all economic constraints until the First World War ended what Arnoldreferred to as 'the ivory tower of my youth'. He was not only soaking up allthat was then new in music - Strauss, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin -but also was completely swept up in the artistic turmoil generated byDyagilev's Ballets russes, who first appeared in London in 1911.
Ultimately Bax found himself confronted by the real world.During his early years he had become passionately involved with things Irishand the reality of the Easter Rising in Dublin in April 1916 caused him toreact with 'painful intensity of emotion' for among those facing British troopswere personal friends. He did not see military service during the Great War buta succession of personal crises resulted in his life being totally changed. Inparticular his fast-growing passion for the young pianist Harriet Cohen led himto reject the wife that he had married in 1911, and children, for her.
After 1918 Bax was uniquely placed to establish himself onthe musical scene with the large number of substantial scores he had writtenduring the war and he quickly became known as one of the leading Britishcomposers of the day, a reputation underlined by his First Symphony in 1922.Later in the 1920s Bax gradually lost momentum, though this was not realised byhis admirers at the time.
The late 1920s and early 1930s found Bax looking to develophis musical style, and at this time he wrote a number of works such as theNorthern Ballads which, while they inform the later symphonies, were notpromoted by the composer at the time, and only recently has the stature ofthese works become apparent. Both the works here recorded might aptly bedescribed as 'Sinfonietta' and each, although almost unknown to present dayaudiences, is worthwhile in its individual way.
Bax's last symphony, his Seventh, dates from 1938-39. It wasreally his last significant work, for during his last years he composed little,though he became very well-known for two film scores, Malta GC and OliverTwist. Delightful though they are, they are not the music by which a composerof stature may be judged and it is only with the wider appreciation of his manyorchestral works (84 Bax scores require the orchestra) that we can at last seehim for the significant and individual figure that he is, at least in Britishmusic.
Bax wrote his one-movement, three-sectioned, Sinfonietta inMay 1932 and called it Symphonic Phantasy. He put it away and did not offer itfor performance. Later he referred to it as his Sinfonietta and it was listedthus in his catalogue of works. Its only performance prior to this recordingwas during the BBC's Bax Centenary programmes when a number of revivals andfirst performances were given. Although not on the scale of his symphonies,this music has a special personality all its own and most of Bax's mostcharacteristic fingerprints may be found in it. In its variety and colourfuland ever-changing orchestral textures it quickly absorbs one into Bax's variedand suddenly changing moods. The music plays continually, the opening themeacting as something of a motto, returning in the middle section, while thedramatic fast passage which follows contains the seeds of the ideas used in theclosing section. As in the Rondo of the other work here included, this lastmovement reflects the end of Bax's emotional spectrum, throwing the more sombreand reflective earlier sections into sharp relief, though occasionally themusic starts to slip into a more brooding mood. Quickly it all changes intofast music marked Gaily before the triumphal climax with which it ends.
The Overture, Elegy and Rondo dates from the summer of 1927and thus falls between Bax's Second Symphony and the Northern Ballads and ThirdSymphony in Bax's output. Dedicated to his friend Eugene Goossens, it was firstheard in a Queen's Hall Promenade Concert conducted by Sir Henry Wood inOctober 1929. Although published in 1938, the stock of scores was laterdestroyed in a fire at his publisher's and it has never been widely available.The opening Overture has occasionally been heard on its own, detached from thecomplete work, and in its opening theme Bax comes the nearest he ever came toencompassing the then fashionable neo-classicism. He described this openingpassage as 'suggestive of an 18th-century concerto', but the long dreamymiddle-section melody is pure Bax. The central Elegy opens in a mood that Baxdescribed as being 'a little spectral', and after a climax leads us to quietmusic which Bax wants played 'in the manner of a cradle song'.
The finale is extrovert, inhabiting the orchestral styleused by the British light-music composers of the period, such as Bax's friendEric Coates. The bright tune announced on the horns at the outset may bringBax's Rhapsodic Ballad (1939) for solo cello to mind, but on comparison, thetune is much transformed in its translation from the full orchestra.
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra