As I hoped you’ve noticed, the Bax site has been dormant for quite some time. The reason for my neglect of the site is due to my having switched jobs and cities late last year and the lack of time I’ve had since to concentrate on much else but getting adjusted to my new work environment and home. Now that things in my personal life are finally settling, I’m back at work on the site and hopefully I’ll be keeping it updated every month or so. This latest update includes reviews of two very interesting new discs that feature works by Bax that have been completed by Graham Parlett. Graham is a regular contributor to this site and a close friend so I obviously have great regard for him as a person and scholar but even if I didn’t know him as well as I do, I’d still marvel at his abilities to complete and orchestrate Bax’s music. Graham understands Bax’s sound world so completely that he’s able to recreate it even when Bax has given him very little to work with as was the case with certain sections of the Concertino for Piano and Orchestra. We Baxians truly owe Graham our deepest appreciation for all he does to promote and preserve the work of this great but still terribly neglected composer.
I’m feeling a little depressed right now as I’ve been searching the orchestral programs for next season to see what announcements of Bax performances I can add to the site and sadly I’ve found almost nothing. The Proms schedule was just announced and the only work by Bax being played is the delightful but not very representative work, “London Pageant”. Still, I want to thank the Ulster Orchestra and Paul Watkins for at least giving us this little morsel. I’m disappointed the new controller of the Proms, Roger Wright, couldn’t have followed up last season’s success of the Moeran Symphony with one of Bax’s great symphonies but we are getting Parry’s Fifth so I suppose that is progress. But I still have to ask why are the Bax symphonies neglected year after year? There was so much excitement about the symphonies at the time the Naxos and Handley Chandos recordings were coming out but those great sets didn’t result in one professional performance of a Bax symphony anywhere in the world that I’m aware of. What is wrong????
At the risk of offending my wonderful British readers, I’m going to say it seems to be an attitude that many British have, especially their conductors, that their own music just isn’t worth promoting unless it’s by one of the really big names such as Elgar or Britten. Compare this year’s Proms schedule with any of the recent Prague Spring Festival schedules of the last several years and this is illustrated. The Prague programs are always filled with works by Suk, Novak and even Foerster along with the expected Dvorak, Janacek and Martinu. The Czechs are very proud of all their music and their orchestras program it a lot – as they should. Czech conductors advocate for their music abroad too. Jiri Belohlavek has performed all the Martinu symphonies since taking over the BBC Symphony and Pesek recorded many wonderful discs of Suk, Novak and Dvorak with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which now has a brilliant young Russian conductor who isn’t exactly being shy about his allegiance to his native music. He’s already engaged in complete cycles of Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and, I hope, Tchaikovsky. Gianandrea Noseda has been championing relatively little known Italian orchestral composers with the BBC Philharmonic such as Luigi Dallapiccola and both Oramo and Vanska championed Scandinavian music while they were with their British orchestras.
Most British conductors do their share of Elgar, Britten, Holst’s The Planets and bits of Vaughan Williams as well as contemporary British music but few move beyond the very tried and true. Sir Simon Rattle practically ignores British music written prior to the time he was born with the exception of some Elgar and Benjamin Britten. The Berlin Philharmonic gave a searing performance of Elgar’s magnificent Second Symphony a year ago and the audience was thrilled but the conductor was the Russian Kirill Petrenko – not Sir Simon Rattle. Here in Bamberg we have the brilliant Jonathan Nott but you’d never know he was British looking from his programs. Daniel Harding advocates for Britten and he did conduct a VW symphony in Sweden last year but his programs are mostly made up of the usual fashionable continental composers that everyone conducts. Sir Andrew Davis and Sir Mark Elder are more adventurous and they do program more obscure works such as Bax’s Spring Fire but those are rare occasions. Sir Colin Davis and Sir Roger Norrington likewise conduct all the best known British composers and Norrington in particular should be praised for programming so much Vaughan Williams around the world but neither advocates for any of the lesser-known British composers and British music isn’t a central part of their repertoire either.
The death of Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox in 2008 was indeed catastrophic to British music because they were the only two conductors who programmed more obscure British music in their concert programs. It’s very telling that it’s now the Russian Vasilly Sinaisky that the Proms management is going to for performances of British music off the beaten track. He’s brilliant at it so it’s wonderful he’s willing to do it but I think it’s sad they can’t find a British conductor who’s also willing to do this music. Actually, I’m sure David Lloyd-Jones, Rumon Gamba and James Judd would all be willing but they don’t seem to get a lot of concert engagements in England. Could that have anything to do with their having recorded so much British music that programmers in England are fearful they can’t do anything else? That would be sad as Lloyd-Jones is one of the world’s leading interpreters of Russian Music and James Judd and Ruman Gamba seem to be brilliant at just about everything they do. All three conductors men have proven track records with Bax and would be more than willing to perform a Bax symphony at the Proms if ever asked but I fear we will be waiting a long time before that happens. I also hope that John Wilson will someday turn his attention to Arnold Bax but as far as I know, the only work by Bax he has conducted is “Tintagel”.
So I suppose it’s no wonder Bax is never played. He lost his most passionate advocate when Vernon Handley died and so far none of today’s leading British conductors appear the least bit interested in sticking their necks out to get some Bax played in their concerts. There is talk that the new rising-star conductor Edward Gardner might record some Bax for Chandos next year but I worry that for him, it will only be an assignment and he won’t go on to try to get the music played. Today’s Bax activity is among instrumentalist like Ashley Wass and instrumentalist like the Maggini and Tippett Quartet s who are getting Bax’s name out among the public. They are British and they recognize both the greatness and the ability of the music to communicate with audiences. Perhaps Bax ‘s future reputation will rest on his chamber music as it has found favor with chamber musicians all over the world but I’m not seeing such a happy future for the symphonies until some adventurous young conductor decides they are worth the effort to learn and advocate for. I hope there’s some young conductor at the Royal Academy or Royal College of Music in London or at Trinity or Manchester’s Royal College of Music – who is listening to Tod Handley’s or the earlier Lyrita recordings of the Bax symphonies and is discovering the uniquely hypnotic and often shattering power they exert.