Rafael Wallfisch: Arnold Bax Cello Concerto, Bryden Thomson

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Sir Arnold Bax - Cello Conceto (1932)
Performed by Rafael Wallfisch. Conducted by Bryden Thomson with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

I. Allegro Moderato - 00:00
The image of Scottish conductor Bryden Thomson...
 Scottish conductor Bryden Thomson (1928-1991).
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
II. Nocturne - Lento - 14:23
III. Molto Vivace - 24:58

In the early 1930s the British composer Sir Arnold Bax was at the peak of his reputation, and was widely regarded in the UK as one of the leading composers of the day. His Third and Second Symphonies (in that order) were first heard in London in the spring of 1930, the Fourth in December 1932 and the Fifth in January 1934. Most of the other significant British symphonies of the 1930s were yet to appear. Walton's Symphony in B flat minor arrived in December 1934 without its last movement, and was not heard complete for almost another year, while Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony erupted on a startled world in April 1935. So when Bax's new Cello Concerto appeared on 5 March 1934, it was the work of a major figure.

Bax had not previously attempted a conventional concerto, though he had produced a number of concertante works, all of them memorable. The earliest was also the most substantial, his Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, in which the massive piano part probably closely reflects Bax's own pianism. It was quickly followed by his Viola Concerto, the title changed after the first movement to Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra, a modest and delightful score in which Bax made his only acknowledged
quotation of an Irish folksong. Later came the extended Winter Legends for piano and orchestra, almost an orchestral symphony with concertante piano solo, written, like most of Bax's piano works, for the pianist Harriet Cohen. It had been premiered in London in February 1932 and was followed by the much shorter Saga Fragment which Bax had scored from his one-movement Piano Quartet and which Miss Cohen introduced in London in October 1933.

One cellist remarked of Bax's long and complex Cello Sonata of 1923, 'it is like a journey', and many commentators have remarked how Bax's middle period symphonic works appear to be dictated by considerations other than purely musical form. The Cello
Concerto is no exception, except that its effect is achieved with a smaller orchestra than that for which Bax customarily wrote: only two trumpets (the second not appearing at all in the first movement), no trombones or tuba, and no percussion other than timpani. Often Bax needs no more than chamber music textures, and these make the perfect accompaniment for the cello soloist.

There are some remarkably delicate effects. For example, the closing bars of the first movement have the solo cello against strings and then wind nonet with just two chords touched in on the horns at the end. At the beginning of the lovely Nocturne there are only six winds and harp playing, and at several places in this movement only four or five winds. The strings are frequently divisi, and only Bax would have thought of accompanying the first appearance of his second subject tune in the Nocturne with three solo double basses. Just once in the Nocturne the solo cellist duets with a solo viola, but in the finale Bax requires a rather longer duet, where the middle section tune is delivered in thirds -- in many performances the viola is inaudible, and the effect is quite different if both instruments can be heard. Even more in the last movement, there are frequently only five, six or fewer instruments playing with the cello.