Bax Works for Chorus and Orchestra
A dozen years separate Bax’s two commissions for the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester. September 1923 witnessed the première of
To the Name above every Name, a varied and inventive 20-minute setting of verses from Richard Crashaw’s mystical poem. By contrast, Bax’s later setting of Henry Vaughan’s The Morning Watch wears a more considered countenance. I also perceive a greater organic unity (an extended orchestral introduction sows the seeds for all that follows) and, once again, inspiration runs high, not least in the contemplative second half (‘Prayer is the world in tune’), which Vaughan Williams thought ‘of ineffable beauty’. Given the outsize forces (and, by the sound of it, considerable preparation time) required, we perhaps shouldn’t be too surprised that both works had lain unperformed for two decades since their revival by Vernon Handley as part of the BBC’s Bax centenary celebrations. Martyn Brabbins proves a sympathetic guide, and if the Huddersfield Choral Society don’t surmount every technical hurdle, the BBC Philharmonic play admirably, while Chandos’s ample recording recreates a not entirely inapt cathedral-like setting.
Within months of completing To the Name, Bax embarked upon St Patrick’s Breastplate (1923-24), a setting of the eponymous eighth-century Irish Gaelic hymn (translated, it seems, by the composer), which burns with a passionate conviction that conceivably reflects Bax’s own feelings about the emergence of a truly independent Ireland. The two Nocturnes for soprano and orchestra date from the spring of 1911 and are all that remain of a projected triptych. Bax clothes his chosen German texts by Richard Dehmel and Otto Erich Hartleben with a markedly Viennese opulence, and Christine Bunning sings eloquently (her rather wide vibrato will not be to all tastes). Despite any minor niggles, a bold and very welcome release.