Bax Choral Works

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Bax Choral Works

  • Enchanted Summer
  • Walsinghame
  • Fatherland
  • Enchanted Summer
  • Walsinghame
  • Fatherland

Enchanted Summer is an upbeat to the series of orchestral tone-poems that made Bax's reputation (it precedes the earliest of them by two or three years) and you can already hear them in it. The very opening sound, warmly dark still strings with harp, is pure Bax and quite magical, and the bright filigree that follows, evoking sunlight filtering through leaves, is characteristic too. Its lotus-eating rhapsodies are a bit undisciplined as yet, and there are some passages of not quite focused heavy scoring, but the at times slightly derivative choral writing is amply counterpoised by his original layout of the voices: for the first half of the work women's voices only, in two semichoruses that act effectively as back-drop to the foreground detail of the orchestra. The reservation of the full chorus, with male voices, for an eloquent Elgarian theme as Shelley's words (from Prometheus Unbound) hymn the generative power of nature is a splendid coup; so is the delaying of the entry of the two soprano soloists (representing two fauns who have observed with wonder the rising of the sun and the singing of the woodspirits) to an ecstatically lyrical, almost English-Straussian epilogue.
It is a pity that the recording places the soloists so very far forward: they too should be a bit dwarfed by the landscape. Excellent solo and choral contributions, the chorus sopranos a bit white in sound, not inappropriately for the ''elfin and unhuman'' creatures that they portray; Handley is in his element and the orchestra enjoy to the full the score's rich colour and many grateful solo passages.
Fatherland is a good deal earlier and hardly characteristic at all, a vociferous martial ballad with exclamatory orchestral refrains. It apparently became very popular during the First World War (though written ten years before it) and despite its curiously non-specific text (Bax wrote it in Germany to verses in praise of Finland, but was possibly thinking of Ireland as his elective fatherland) one can imagine it going down very well at rallies at the White City or Crystal Palace.
Walsinghame is much later and much more interesting, melodically very strong and emotionally direct. Bax was just the right composer to distill both the passion and the bitterness beneath the formal conceit of Raleigh's poem. The vocal parts are most ingeniously scored: an ardent tenor in colloquy with a more dispassionate chorus, but with a wordless semi-chorus exclaiming in sympathy at his grief and a brief and beautiful soprano vocalise to personify the faithless lover who ''like a nymph did appear, in her gait, in her grace''. It is a sad piece, one of Bax's numerous laments for his vanished youth, but its opening pages have a fine gravity and its coda a resigned calm that are most striking. It is full-bloodedly performed and finely recorded.'

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