David Parlett's Bax Pages

REVIEWS

Premiere of Bax's Piano Concertino
Friday 3 July 2009 at the Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon


1. John Gough, Birmingham Post

At Stratford's "Last Night of the Proms" the focus of interest was on the world premiere of a "new" work by Arnold Bax.

His Concertino for Piano and Orchestra was started in 1939 and intended for his muse, the pianist Harriet Cohen, but found the prevailing political tension inhibited his creative abilities and it was abandoned.

The detective story of the work's restoration is the subject of a forthcoming documentary. So was the 70-year wait worth it? A definite yes. Despite its title this is a big-boned, full-length, virtuoso piano concerto. The brilliance of its writing and ambivalence of its moods make it a striking piece.

There is ambiguity in the luscious calm of the slow movement, but the finale brought reservations as the joviality of the material seemed forced.

Soloist Mark Bebbington and conductor David Curtis had great command, not only of the muscular demands of the virtuoso writing but also of the complex harmonic directions.

2. Roger Jones, www.musicweb-international.com

Attending the premiere of a work by a dead English composer may not be everyone's idea of a good night out. But there was excitement in the air as Mark Bebbington sat down to play the Concertino for piano and orchestra by Sir Arnold Bax, not least because of the presence of a film crew recording the event.

Why the fuss? Firstly because Bax is not a composer to be disregarded. Although performances of his works are relatively infrequent nowadays, in the thirties he was regarded as Britain's leading composer of symphonies and for a decade or so was Master of the Kings Music.

Another reason is because there is an interesting story behind this first performance. In 1939 Bax mentions in a letter that he is working on a "small concerto" for the pianist Harriet Cohen, but the work disappears off the radar for 65 years. It was rediscovered only three years ago in the archives of the British Library by composer and Bax scholar Graham Parlett who was so impressed by the score that he set about preparing a performing edition.

Harriet Cohen was one of the leading pianists of her day and a champion of new music. She also had a Long and passionate Love affair with Bax. After his death in 1953 she commandeered his manuscripts and a collection of Love letters they wrote to each other and bequeathed most of them to the British Library. "If she had not acted in this way, they might have been Lost for ever, reflects Harriet's biographer, Helen Fry, who has spent long hours at the British Library sifting through the Bax archive.

So much for the preamble; is the Concertino worth the wait? Initially I had my doubts. The work starts off in a quiet, rhapsodic manner. But a darker mood quickly invades the music with heavy chords on the piano and raucous trumpet calls. The mood becomes ever more dramatic and tense until a short clarinet passage returns us to the calm of the opening.

I was tempted to see the music as a reflection of the gathering storm that was soon to engulf Europe before the end of 1939. Helen Fry concurred with this view, reminding me that certain other works by Bax had been inspired by political events, notably, the Easter Rising of 1916.

The slow movement started off as a quiet lullaby with lush string accompaniment, but the calm was soon shattered by an outburst of angst from the pianist which provoked a dissonant response from the orchestra. After a shattering climax calm was restored but this time it offered little consolation.

The final movement was an altogether more cheerful affair - a high spirited scherzo with plenty of rhythmic interest. There was plenty of opportunity for the versatile Mark Bebbington to display his virtuosity with his deft finger work and tremendous runs up and down the keyboard. The Orchestra of the Swan under David Curtis's astute direction seemed to relish the fun as they cast off the shadows of the earlier movements.

Clearly there has been plenty of commitment from orchestra, conductor, pianist and composer alike to get this project off the ground and they therefore deserve our profound gratitude. The musical world would be a poorer place if this work had disappeared without trace.

Yet the title "concertino" is somewhat misleading, since there is nothing "small" about this concerto. It is an epic outpouring of passion and foreboding. It would be wonderful if Graham Parlett's orchestration comes to enjoy similar success to Anthony Payne's reworking of Elgar's Third Symphony. There is some very fine music in the Concertino, and the forthcoming CD of its should gain it a much wider audience. Perhaps this will lead to a long overdue reappraisal of Bax's contribution to British musical life. [...]

Helen Fry's book, "Music and Men: The Life and Times of Harriet Cohen" is published by the History Press. A CD of the Concertino will be released in the autumn. "Romantic Overture", the documentary about the discovery and first performance of the Concertino, is being made by Honest Injun Films.

3. Rian Evans, The Guardian

In the late 1930s, Arnold Bax- before he was named Master of the King's Music - conceived a concertino for piano and orchestra for his lover, celebrated pianist Harriet Cohen, the inspiration for so much of his writing. It's not known whether it was disaffection with the composition, with Cohen, or simply growing pessimism in the face of an imminent war that accounted for its failure to reach the concert platform, but, 70 years on, the work finally got its premiere in Stratford.

Its re-emergence is partly thanks to Bax specialist Graham Parlett, who edited and orchestrated the short score, and partly to the enthusiasm of Mark Bebbington, who has carved a niche for himself in rescuing piano repertory. In this performance with the Orchestra of the Swan and conductor David Curtis, Bebbington gives a poised account of the solo part, which is demanding while avoiding any showy virtuosity. The sweep of the music recalls, among others, Strauss and Sibelius, but the overall emotional focus is harder to pinpoint.

In the first two movements, the generally rhapsodic flow embraces lyrical, nostalgic themes and altogether darker, more tormented moods. But, while sequences of escalating tension were a palpable reflection of the times, Bax seems to make heavy weather of the musical processes.

The jaunty finale does not sound like a natural sequel to what comes before, and it feels like a case of putting on a brave face. The piece is as long as any full-blown concerto, but the very title "concertino" seems self-deprecating, as if the composer realised it was not as good as it should have been. If so, he was probably right.

4. Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph

A romantic ode to the North

You have to admire the chutzpah. Last weekend, that enterprising regional chamber orchestra, the Orchestra of the Swan, presented its own Last Night of the Proms, a good two weeks before the BBC even starts its own Proms season. All the old favourites were there: Handel's Water Music, Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance, Parry's Jerusalem.

But what brought a contingent of critics to Warwickshire was the world premiere of a piece by the one-time Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Arnold Bax. In 1939, Bax made sketches for a three-movement piano concerto for his mistress, the pianist Harriet Cohen. After his death in 1963, they disappeared into the bowels of the British Library. There they lay, until Bax enthusiast Graham Parlett decided to work them up into a performable piece, egged on by that fine pianist and enthusiast for British music, Mark Bebbington.

Bebbington performed the solo part in this reconstructed Concertino. And what a strange piece it turned out to be, endearing and exasperating in roughly equal measure. In some ways, the piece is a throwback to the heroic romantic concerto, tinged here and there with a military flavour. The piano part is full of strenuously triumphal melodies in the proper Lisztian manner.

The programme drew our attention to the quieter moments as evidence for Bax's mystical attraction to the North and all things Celtic. But to me these dark and windswept moments in Bax always have a tinge of luxury, more like an Edwardian dumb-show of the North than anything truly chilly. The heaving billows of the heroic sections would suddenly cloud over with Frenchified harmonies, sometimes impressionist (as in the delicious rippling opening), but more often opulent, like a Second Empire boudoir.

Yet Bax can surprise us. In the slow movement, the harmonics became more acerbically modern, with twittering arabesques.

Bebbington played the grand moments with an appropriate swagger, and cherished the rare moments of delicacy. Graham Parlett's orchestration had a Bax-like fullness, and his filling-in of the missing elements felt thoroughly idiomatic - though one had to wonder if Bax's handling of the antiphonal exchanges between piano and orchestra would have been quite so literal. In all, it wasn't a masterpiece we witnessed, but it was well worth hearing.

Bax's "Concertino", performed by Mark Bebbington and the Orchestra of the Swan, will be released in the autumn on the Somm label.