Friday, 24 June 2011

Arnold Bax: Saga Fragment for piano and orchestra

There is a danger that listeners may down-rate the Saga Fragment simply because it was not a new work, but a reheated piece ‘dished up’ from Bax’s catalogue of chamber music. In fact, they could make no greater error of judgement. As Brian Wilson writing on MusicWeb International suggests, ‘it sounds anything but cobbled together.’
The work was a result of a request by Harriet Cohen for a short ‘concerted’ piece for her forthcoming American tour in 1933. Bax orchestrated the [Piano] Quartet in One Movement (GP255) which had been written in 1922 at around the same time as he was composing his First Symphony. It was a time when the composer was dismayed by the developing civil war in his beloved Eire.
Lewis Foreman has noted that the original piano part has been rearranged a little with some octave doubling added. The work was orchestrated for relatively small forces - piano solo, trumpet, percussion and strings. The Saga Fragment’s first performance was at the Queen’s Hall with Constant Lambert on the rostrum.
The mood of the music is quite severe. Andrew Burn in the liner notes of recently released Naxos CD quotes Cohen writing in her autobiography that this is ‘a savage little work much admired by Bartok.’ Bax himself is reputed to have said that Saga Fragment was ‘a rather tough pill.’
Once again Lewis Foreman well sums up the mood of this piece – ‘The composer appears torn between grim contemporary realities and an earlier, more romantic existence.’
Certainly, the piece opens with an aggressive, bristly staccato on the strings, and the piano, when it enters, strikes a sinister note. However this belligerence is not the full story. The composer is almost schizophrenic in his approach to the musical language with the middle section being wistful, reflective and possibly even optimistic in its mood. There is a ‘bardic’ magic in some of the quieter moments in this piece that looks towards the re-creation of an ideal world- most likely in Eire. At bottom, it is the violence pitted against the romance that makes or breaks this piece.
This work is currently available on Chandos and Naxos. Both versions are essential listening to all Bax enthusiasts.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where the substance of this text first appeared.

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