Saturday, 27 July 2013

Arnold Bax: An Early Recording of ‘Mater ora filium’

I was perusing some early editions of The Gramophone magazine the other day. I was surprised to read that at July 1927 there was only a single work by the Arnold Bax currently available on record – the choral piece ‘Mater ora filium’. This work which was composed in 1921 was composed for unaccompanied double choir (SSAATTBB) and was based on an old carol discovered in the library of Balliol College, Oxford. David Parlett has written that this music was inspired after the composer heard a performance of Byrd’s Mass for five voices. The musicologist, Edward Dent has written that the ‘result on paper looks an almost unsingable jumble. In performance it was admirably calculated, full of the most adorable surprises.
The recording referred to was sung by the Leeds Festival Choir of 1925 and was issued under H.M.V. D.1044-5.  The reviewer in The Gramophone W.A. Chislett noted that the singing of this ‘difficult and exacting work is magnificent. No trace of flattening of pitch can be found, and the sustained high notes of the sopranos and the sonority of the basses are positively thrilling at times.’ He also praised the high quality of the recording, although he noted that, ‘in one or two places perfect balance in this complicated texture of sound is not achieved He concludes his review by suggesting that this is a work that needs to be heard repeatedly and that ‘it is in a work of this nature that the greatest benefit is derived from the gramophone.
Fortunately this very recording has been re-pristinated for the digital age by Symposium SYMPCD1336 and was released in 2003:  it is currently available for download at Amazon. It is truly a magnificent performance.  
There is a fine ‘modern’ recording, made in 1969 by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge conducted by David Willcocks. This was released on EMI Classics 95433.
Finally I shall be considering W.A Chislett’s further remarks about Arnold Bax in later posts.

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