Sunday, 10 July 2011

Arnold Bax: Winter Legend for piano & orchestra


The Manchester Guardian reviewer gave an excellent précis of Winter Legends, which may be derived from the programme notes: it is worth quoting. ‘There are three movements: The first is a gradual assembling and forging of various elements into a triumphant climax, the second, on the whole darker in tone, reaches a serene close, and the third, beginning starkly, comes to an end with the return of the sun after a long Northern Winter.’
It is not necessary to elaborate on this description and give a detailed analysis of Winter Legends. However, I think that it is essential to discuss three things: the work’s formal status, the extra-musical associations and the influences.
Firstly, is Winter Legends a symphony or a piano concerto? During the nineteen-twenties Bax had written his first three symphonies. Lewis Foreman has suggested that the composer had a bit of a stylistic crisis when it came to formulating his Fourth, which duly appeared in 1931. Almost as a preliminary to that great work he composed Winter Legends which has the formal characteristics of his symphonies which typically involved three movements with an epilogue. On the other hand, Andrew Burn notes that Bax did not view this present work or the earlier Symphonic Variations as being ‘conventional piano concertos’. In fact, the composer described Winter Legends as a ‘sinfonia concertante’. He told Adrian Boult that ‘the use of the piano was more akin to an important orchestral instrument’. To the listener, there is nothing simple or straightforward about the piano part: I guess it taxes the technique of the soloist to the extreme. However it not conceived in terms of mere technical display, nor is it a competition between piano and orchestra. There is a conversation between the two elements; however, it is more dialogue than dialectic. Bax regarded the formal construction of the piece as being too rhapsodic and ‘free’ to be a symphony as such but was probably content for it to be regarded as one if the listener or critic so chose.
Secondly, Andrew Burn has pointed out that Bax may or may not have had a ‘programme’ in mind when he composed this work, but he certainly never revealed what it might have been. In fact, Bax wrote in the programme notes for Winter Legends that the piece does not have ‘any communicable programme. The listener may associate what he hears with any heroic tale or tales of the North – of the far North, be it said. Some of these happenings may have taken place within the Arctic Circle.
‘Legends that once were told or sung
In many a smoky fireside nook
Of Iceland, in the ancient day
By wandering Saga-man or Scald.’
Bax concludes by suggesting that ‘there is nothing consciously Celtic about this work’.

Even the most cursory of hearings reveals a composition that is packed with musical adventures and covers a whole range of emotions – from ‘joy to sadness, triumph to despair, violence to peace and both love and hate’.
In fact, when I have listened to this piece, I have tended to see it as a major ‘love story’ especially written for the composer’s lover and muse, Harriet Cohen. Certainly a study of this relationship would suggest that Bax (and Cohen) would have traversed many of the emotions present in this work.
Thirdly, it would be easy to suggest that as there is ‘Northern’ colouring to this work, there must be some debt to Jean Sibelius. It is not quite as simple as that. There is little stylistic similarity to Sibelius. Bax has made use of an ‘intricate and closely woven polyphonic texture’ which is very different to the largely harmonic and homophonic writing of Sibelius. However there are similarities of ethos. The contemporary reviewer in The Manchester Guardian suggested that ‘the way in which ... the first movement is built up is strikingly analogous to many of Sibelius’s symphonic movements.’ Finally, furthering the idea of ethos rather than detail, it may be proposed that ‘there is more than a suggestion of the same master’s En Saga.’ Interestingly, the composer originally dedicated the work to the Finnish master but later changed it to Harriet Cohen.
When I first heard this work back in 1987, I considered that it rambled a little: I did not feel that it hung together properly. However after a number of ‘hearings’ the material seems to fall into place. Perhaps the problem was that there is such a huge range of emotion packed into what is a relatively short period (38 minutes).
I love this work in spite of a feeling that it is not quite equal in quality from the first to the last bar. There is a sense that there are pages of genius in Winter Legends that are set alongside music that is not quite so imaginative. Yet the overall impression is of a fine work that manages to hold the listener’s attention from beginning to end.
The first performance of Winter Legends took place at the Queen’s Hall on 10 February 1932 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Adrian Boult. It was performed shortly afterwards in the United States with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky. Harriet Cohen later made a radio studio recording of Winter Legends and this is available on Dutton CDBP 9751.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

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