Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Arnold Bax: Violin Concerto


Arnold Bax is well represented in the CD catalogues – even if a little unevenly. For example, all British music enthusiasts must be delighted (and amazed) that there are four cycles of the complete symphonies currently available – on CD or MP3. (For the record those are by Chandos with Handley and Thomson, Lyrita and Naxos).
The most popular work is Tintagel with more than thirty recordings currently available. This is closely followed by the magical The Garden of Fand with eleven. However at the other end of the scale, two of my favourite Bax works, the Violin Concerto and The Truth of the Russian Dancers are represented by just one recording each – and one of these is an MP3-only exercise. However there are always the second-hand shops. I confess to buying my copies the day they ‘hit the streets.’
The Violin Concerto is a great work. It ought to be amongst the top 10 of British essays in this form. (I will give a list of these ‘10’ in a later post!), however I guess that very few people know this present work.
The concerto was begun in 1937 and completed in March the following year. However it was not performed until a St Cecilia’s Day Concert in 22 November 1943. The soloist was Eda Kersey (pictured above right) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood. The concerto had originally been dedicated to Jascha Heifitz, however he found the music ‘somewhat disappointing; which may be a euphemism for ‘not sufficiently virtuosic'.
Lewis Foreman reminds listeners that Eda Kersey was tragically killed in an air raid in the summer of 1944. The impact on the concerto was that as she was the only champion the work virtually died with her.
Bax made a number of revisions and cuts to the work, Graham Parlett suggest the premiere possibly used the uncut version. However, the fully restored version was not heard until the Chandos recording with Lydia Mordkovitch, the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Bryden Thomson.
Graham Parlett quotes Julian Herbage writing in the 19 November 1943 edition of the Radio Times: this includes a short programme note by the composer, so it is a good summary of the concerto. 'Unfortunately I have had the opportunity of examining only the piano score of the concerto.....I asked the composer if he could in his own words give me a description of its structure, and in spite of his usual diffidence he sent me the following brief explanatory note:-
This concerto consists of the usual three movements, but it may be advisable to say a few words about the unconventional shape of the first. This actually comprises three distinct short pieces labelled respectively: Overture, Ballad and Scherzo, and yet at the same time the whole may be counted as in sonata form.
The Overture contains several themes, all of a restless and energetic character; the following Ballad takes the place of a main second subject; while the Scherzo represents the development section (making mock of the themes of the first part). Finally there are triumphant restatements of the chief themes of the Overture and Ballad.’

William Mann has written in the Penguin survey of ‘Concertos’ [1] that the violin concerto ‘sprang surprises in plenty on those who attended the first performance (in 1937) expecting to hear a thickly-scored, highly-coloured, perhaps diffuse rhapsody –something like a long, accompanied cadenza. There is none of that here. This concerto’s three-movement design is concisely organised, its texture clear cut. The solo part offers opportunities to a brilliant player, but there is something almost classical about the work’s avoidance of heavy emotion or anything so loquacious as a cadenza-almost, but not quite, for its amiable lightly romantioc freshness rather recalls Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.’
The second movement, with its pseudo-eighteenth century soundscape and third are no less interesting. Perhaps the highlight of the work is the luscious ‘Richard Strauss-like’ waltz that comes towards the end of the Rondo.
One word of warning: if you are lucky enough to have the violin/piano score, lookout for the cuts. For example there is an entire page cut-out towards the end of the last movement. It certainly floored me until I mugged up on the work in Graham Parlett’s indispensable catalogue!
Finally, I wondered if there is any ‘programme’ in this concerto, especially as to what the ‘ballad’ alluded to. There is no easy answer. But I suggest that the listener read Lewis Foreman’s account (in his biography of the composer) of Bax’s ‘affair’ with Christine Ryan, who was at nearly half the composer’s age. The ‘relationship’ ended by March 1943; just about the time that the full score of the Violin Concerto was completed!

Notes:
[1] The Concerto ed. by Ralph Hill Penguin, London 1952 (1954,1956)

Bax’s Violin Concerto is available on Chandos. It can also be found on Youtube.

9 comments:

JMW said...

Thanks for a wonderful illumination of a wonderful work. I wish I could convince more violinists to perform it.

John France said...

Thanks for that!!!

J

Anonymous said...

This discussion reminded me of another long neglected violin concerto by another worthy composer William Alwyn. According to the notes to a Chandos cd also by Lydia Mordkovitch his was left in a drawer for fifty years after being rejected by the BBC. The Penguin Guide gave it faint praise; other reviews I recall weren't as kind. Thanks ..Paul from Ohio

John France said...

Ahha!!! My review of the Alwyn Violin Concerto will be on my blog soon: it has already been posted on MusicWeb!!
Bax, Alwyn, Morgan, Somervell et al - all great stuff...but all sadly ignored by concert promoters.

Graham Parlett said...

Thanks, John. The British Library Sound Archive has a copy of that recording of the first performance under Wood. The cuts are made there, so it has probably never been played complete. Even Mordkovitch's recording has one short passage missing. Amazingly, the full score of the work exists only in manuscript; there is not even a copyist's score.

John France said...

Thanks for that Graham!

Jonathon said...

It is a wonderful piece! Forgive me, but I would like to correct you on one piece of information. Eda Kersey didn't die in an air raid, though she was performing at the Albert Hall in 1944 when a bomb exploded in the vicinity. She died of cancer aged 40 late in 1944. You can read more about her in a very informative article here. http://www.wrightmusic.net/pdfs/eda-kersey.pdf

Jonathon said...

It is a wonderful piece! Forgive me, but I would like to correct you on one piece of information. Eda Kersey didn't die in an air raid, though she was performing at the Albert Hall in 1944 when a bomb exploded in the vicinity. She died of cancer aged 40 late in 1944. You can read more about her in a very informative article here. http://www.wrightmusic.net/pdfs/eda-kersey.pdf

JMW said...

If you're interested: https://soundcloud.com/minacciosa/sets/john-mclaughlin-williams-plays-the-arnold-bax-violin-concerto