Bax: Tone Poems, Vol. 2: Three Northern Ballads; Nympholept; Red Autumn (orch Parlett); The Happy Forest; Into the Twilight

COMPOSERS: Bax
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Bax
WORKS: Tone Poems, Vol. 2: Three Northern Ballads; Nympholept; Red Autumn (orch Parlett); The Happy Forest;
Into the Twilight

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PERFORMER: BBC Philharmonic/Vernon Handley
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10446
Except for Graham Parlett’s effective and idiomatic orchestration of Red Autumn, a work Bax left only in versions for one and two pianos, Chandos has recorded all these Bax tone poems before, in performances either by Bryden Thomson or Vernon Handley. They appear now in new versions as part of Handley’s ongoing Bax series with the BBC Philharmonic, and are immediately the most recommendable versions in every case. Handley has been our foremost Baxian for over 40 years; he’s lived with the composer’s idiom so closely that by now no one quite touches him in this repertoire. The tone-poem or ‘nature poem’ seems the genre closest to Bax’s heart, and this selection spans from one of the earliest, Into the Twilight (1908), to the quasi-symphonic cycle of Northern Ballads(?1927), No. 2 of which might fairly be described as Bax’s Tapiola. The scherzo-like Happy Forest apart, rich instrumental colouring and atmospherically evocative chromatic chiaroscuro are foremost, superbly brought out in this recording. Handley admirably disentangles the glittering pre‑Raphaelite instrumental strands in the previously elusive Nympholept, sending the piece several notches up in my estimation. His grasp of Bax’s at-times-unconvincing structures pays off especially in the Northern Ballad sequence: both the gloomily discursive No. 2 and the oddly truncated No. 3 are made utterly convincing as musical designs, and the sheer magnificence of their material shines through unconstrained. There are effective and distinguished rivals (Boult, Downes) in the individual Northern Ballads and most of the other tone-poems (Thomson on Chandos, Lloyd-Jones on Naxos), to say nothing of Handley’s earlier Chandos recordings of Ballads Nos 1 and 2. But this is the version to acquire.