Endnotes, November 2023

Arthur in the Barge, credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, November 2023

In this edition: seasonal music by Bax, Medtner in England, reviewed by Stuart Millson

Sibelius once remarked that the English composer, Arnold Bax, was “his son in music”. Readers who are familiar with the early-to-mid 20th-century Finnish symphonist’s dark works which evoke landscape (such as Tapiola, dedicated to an ancient spirit of the forests) will immediately grasp the significance of the quotation: Sibelius’s nature-worship and the intense, ‘dark-brown’ orchestration of so many of his works, providing ~ if not a template ~ but a lodestar for British music’s custodians of twilight Celtic romanticism.

Bax (1883-1953) was at his best, perhaps, in the medium of the orchestral tone-poem ~ his Arthurian fantasy, Tintagel being the best-known example. Mythical oceanscapes were also conjured in the dreamy horizons of The Garden of Fand ~ but the composer firmly rooted himself in mossy thickets and tree-shadows in The Happy Forest; and in the longer, majestic and mystical November Woods, conceived in the later years of the Great War (at about the same time as Tintagel).

November Woods evokes the gloom of a late-autumn, early-winter day; a cold breeze causing the branches of bare-boned trees to shiver in the dying light of the ever-shorter days. Mahler-lovers might also sense some of the atmosphere of the movement, ‘The Lonely One in Autumn’, from Das Lied Von der Erde, in Bax’s brilliantly effective painting of nature and the elements in his score. Yet the work is really a musical memoir of a love-affair, conducted by the composer in the landscape of the Chiltern Hills with musician, Harriet Cohen.

Bax wrote:

‘It may be taken as an impression of the dank and stormy music of nature in late autumn, but the whole piece and its origins are connected with certain rather troublous experiences I was going through myself at the time, and the mood of the Buckinghamshire wood, where the idea of this work came, seemed to sound a similar chord as it were… The middle part may be taken as a dream of happier days, such as sometimes come in the intervals of stress either physical or mental.’

Two particular recordings of November Woods stand out: the first, a classic reading by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in the rich, analogue sound associated with the Lyrita label in its 1960s-‘70s period; the second, a live recording from the 2003 Proms, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (the flagship orchestra, founded by Boult in 1930) under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis ~ now himself a ‘grand old man’ of English music. In the Royal Albert Hall acoustic, Bax’s music seems to have that extra dimension of air and reverberation, thus adding to Bax’s winter daydream. Devotees, though, of Boult’s conducting style will sense a more ‘four-square’ approach to the music ~ perhaps leading to a less ‘impressionistic’ feel; a version that would fit well with Boult’s Elgar and Vaughan Williams discography. Whatever version you choose, November Woods is the perfect piece for this time of year.

Finally, to a new release of chamber music on the SOMM label, dedicated to the lesser-known Russian emigre, Nikolai Medtner ~ a figure who, like Rachmaninov, experienced the patriotic pain of exile from his beloved Russian heartland. Unable to cope with the barbarism of Bolshevism, Medtner and his wife took their homeland in their hearts, to distant shores and freedom.

On a CD entitled Medtner in England, SOMM brings together Natalia Lomeiko (violin), Alexander Karpeyev (piano) and Theodore Platt (baritone) for the Violin Sonata No. 3, the Sonata-Idylle in G major, and Eight Songs, Op. 61 ~ a splendid, representative sample of Medtner’s essentially romantic, but clearly intense 20th-century idiom. Francis Pott’s sleeve-notes bring Medtner to life, presenting much useful biographical information; pointing to the composer as a very private, sensitive but ‘lofty’ soul ~ with a strong attachment to Germanic culture (through a Teutonic strain in his ancestry). A photograph, taken in Warwickshire in the 1940s, reproduced on page 6 of the booklet, shows the composer in generally avuncular mood, holding a panama hat; smiling, yet with an expression hinting (perhaps) at a mind preoccupied with the emotions of an exile’s loss ~ as may be found in his Eichendorff setting in Eight Songs:

‘The path may take me where it will,
the sky is now my roof;
the sun appears with each new day,
the stars they keep their watch.’

Serenity and ‘a valedictory late-summer haze’ can be found in the music on this inspiring and intriguing CD, as well as dynamic scherzo passages, and ~ in the Violin Sonata ~ the satisfying momentum of an Allegro Molto finale in which Natalia Lomeiko and Alexander Karpeyev convince us that Medtner deserves to be far better known. The venue for the recording, the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouthshire, seems the perfect choice: clarity of sound, warmth, detail are all there for our complete enjoyment.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review.

CD details:

Bax, Tone Poems, Boult/LPO, Lyrita, SRCD231.

Bax, November Woods (with works by Elgar, Britten and Walton), BBC SO/Davis, Warner Classics 2564 61550-2.

Medtner in England, SOMMCD 0674.

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