Margaret Fingerhurt: Arnold Bax Winter Legends, Bryden Thomson

Labels: , ,

Arnold Bax Winter Legends (1929)
Performed by Margaret Fingerhurt. Conducted by Bryden Thomson
The image of Scottish conductor Bryden Thomson...
The image of Scottish conductor Bryden Thomson (1928-1991). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

I. Allegro - 00:00
II. Lento - Molto Espressivo - 14:03
III. Molto Moderato - Allegro Molto - 29:22
IV. Epilogue - Molto Cantabile - 37:14

During the 1920s Bax produced three symphonies, although by the end of the decade he appears to have been faced with a stylistic crisis. In considering a fourth symphony, he first produced a work for piano and orchestra, Winter Legends, and only when he had conceived a more extrovert, purely orchestral Fourth Symphony was Winter Legends heard. It is in that form which Bax evolved for his symphonies -- three movements with epilogue -- though he referred to it as a 'sinfonia concertante for piano and orchestra'. Although he agreed that it might well be regarded as another symphony, he remarked that 'in the first movement the form is free', and in the last analysis he felt that movement to be 'too rhapsodic' for symphonic structure. The music was written very quickly, in the autumn of 1929, and the three movements (in short score) are dated 22 October, 30 October and 4 December. The full score was ready by 3 April 1930, but the first performance at Queen's Hall did not take place until 10 February 1932, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Adrian Boult, with Harriet Cohen at the piano. Bax originally inscribed the score to Sibelius, but by the time it was performed this had been changed in favour of his pianist.

'The work', Bax tells us in his programme note, "makes no pretence of being a piano concerto in the ordinary sense. The piano is not used as a means of technical display though it plays a difficult part. Neither has the piece any communicable programme. The listener may associate what he hears with any heroic tale or tales of the North -- of the far North, be it said. Some of these happenings may have taken place within the Arctic Circle." 'Legends that once were told or sung In many a smoky fireside nook Of Iceland, in the ancient day By wandering Saga-man or Scald.' "There is nothing consciously Celtic about this work."

After the first performance, Ernest Newman remarked that Bax might have told us outright what legends he had in mind, for they not only set his imagination to work in the first place but obviously shaped its course at a dozen points. In fact there is clearly an underlying programme, but whether it is something as well delineated as an Icelandic saga or, rather less precisely, it is a more subconscious drama of Bax himself, we cannot tell. In structure the first movement is unlike any other he wrote; a succession of episodes which always return to the rhythm of the opening. At its heart is an extended piano solo, a wayward dream. Bax described the form as 'an assembling and fusing of various elements for the forging of a great climax.' The middle movement is darker in colour than the first, and is in a broadly ternary form. The first idea is announced by the piano, and there then ensues a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. Later, the opening idea of the first movement appears at a slow tempo and acts as a bridge to the second part of this central movement. This, Bax tells us, 'is introduced by a menacing surge of sound derived from the piano whirlwind of the earlier movement'. A harsh insistent idea on the piano in octaves is now introduced. Bax writes, It gradually softens and grows warmer until the mood is transformed into something similar to the dream episode in the Allegro. A long climax is established (and with it the return of darker elements) but finally subsides.

The music again appears to be telling some hidden story, the critic Herbert Hughes noting that it 'expresses a mental and spiritual experience (and in that sense is narrative) as clearly as any written or spoken legend'. The solo tuba theme that launches the last movement over rippling piano arpeggios has elicited some comment for the rare opportunity offered to that instrument (there are in fact brief solos for it in all three movements). The chief characteristic of the third movement (for which Bax gave both Lento and Molto moderato markings for the opening section in different copies of his score) is its alternation of short passages for solo piano with the orchestra. Several times we seem to pass into the world of the Third Symphony (the last major score he had completed) and the work ends with an extended Epilogue introduced by a long piano solo which presages a stormy crescendo. 'This conclusion', wrote Bax, may possibly suggest the return of the sun and warm airs from the South after the long Northern winter... the music ends in, as it were, a burst oflight.