Saturday, 22 November 2014

Arnold Bax: review of first recording of Tintagel.

In 1929 Eugene Goossens and the New Symphony Orchestra made the first recording of Arnold Bax’s great tone-poem Tintagel. The critic W.R. Anderson, who was a mainstay of The Gramophone magazine, duly sang its praises, as well as commenting on the other piece included on the 2-disc set, Mediterranean. It is interesting to note his enthusiasm for future Bax recording projects. It was not until the 1970s that his began to become a reality. Unfortunately, Bax is not strong in the concert hall in our day. For example, Tintagel has not been performed at a Proms Concert since 1989. The Symphonic Variations was last heard at that venue in 1938.  The Goossens recording of Bax’s Tintagel is currently available on Dutton CDBP 9779.

To record Tintagel is bold and good [1]. The bigger Bax awaits full recognition, and recording will hasten it. [2] So will broadcasting, when Bax can get as much time in the programmes as his stature merits. Of Tintagel he has said that it is ‘only in the broadest sense programme music. Its intention is simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle-crowned cliff of Tintagel, and more especially of the long distances of the Atlantic as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny but not windless summer day. The literary and traditional associations of the scene also enter into the scheme’ – those of Tristan, presumably, in particular. [3] This is an ideal brief composer’s note, putting the imagination into gear, so to speak, and leaving the music to carry us along. I am reminded a little of parts of Frank Bridge’s suite The Sea which Columbia of old recorded. [4] Bax is still more subtly powerful, I feel. This is one of the finest suggestions of old scenes and of nature’s sway that we have. I doubt if any record can get the size and scope of the seascape, but the quieter, broader, more intimate evocations are here, with a sureness of touch in the performance (so far as memory carries one) that deserve high praise. I reckon this some of the best recording of the day. Much is due to Goossens’ sympathy and insight. I hope that he will make many more records, especially of imaginative, impressionistic music. It should be added that the work is not ‘advanced’ or eccentric in any way.
Mediterranean was originally a piano piece. Bax scored it for the big concert of his works that his publishers, Murdochs, courageously gave in November 1922. The firm has kept faith with him, and few British composers now at work, of Bax’s quality, have had so many serious works printed (of late years, at any rate) as soon as written. This glowing, swaying music is not so much like conventional ‘sunny South’ poster-music made by foreigners. It is not of the calibre of Tintagel, but it fits snugly into the memory and gently titillates the musical palate.
May we have more Bax, please? – the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, containing at lease on the loveliest movements written by any living composer, and The Garden of Fand, which ranks Bax with Delius. I believe the N.G.S. (National Gramophone Society) may do the quartet in G which I suggested a few years ago. [5] It is one of the most straightforward and open-hearted of his works. Meanwhile, support H.M.V.’s enterprise in doing Tintagel so splendidly.
The Gramophone February 1930.  (W.R. Anderson)

Notes
[1] HMV C1619/20: New Symphony Orchestra/Eugene Goossens: Arnold Bax: Tintagel and Mediterranean.
[2]Enthusiasts had to wait until 1943 for the first recording of a Bax Symphony by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra.  There are now three complete cycles of the Symphonies available on CD: Bryden Thomson on Chandos, Vernon Handley on Chandos and David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos. Arkiv CD Website list of recordings currently available include Tintagel (20), Symphonic Variations (2), Mediterranean (8), The Garden of Fand (10) and String Quartet in G (2) 
[3] Hannam, William B, Arnold Bax & the Poetry of Tintagel, 2008.  Hannam reminds the reader that Arnold Bax and the pianist Harriet Cohen spent more than six weeks together at Tintagel during August and September, 1917. So this is a personal love-poem as well as the statements he made in the brief programme note.
[4] Columbia L1500/1: London Symphony Orchestra/Frank Bridge: Frank Bridge: The Sea

[5] The National Gramophone Society duly released a recording of the Strong Quartet No.1 in G major in 1930, played by the Marie Wilson String Quartet. Gramophone Society NGS153/5.

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