BAX: Violin Concerto. Eda Kersey (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult (rec.23 February 1944). Symphony No.3. Hallé Orchestra, John Barbirolli (rec.31 January 1943 and 12 January 1944). Dutton Laboratories CD: CDLX 7111.
THE SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE
Last Modified August 1, 2001.
Dutton Laboratories CD: CDLX 7111
Review by Rob Barnett
In one fell swoop Dutton restores the classic Barbirolli version of Bax 3 to the catalogue and ushers in the first commercial release of Eda Kersey’s traversal of the Violin Concerto. Both are leading documents of their time and have much to tell us about Bax and performance practice.
The Concerto was written for Heifetz but disdained by him because, as Lewis Foreman tells us in his habitually exemplary liner notes, the work was insufficiently challenging. Truth to tell it is an enigmatic work if your reference points are the symphonies. It makes more sense if you group it with things like Maytime in Sussex and the overture Work in Progress. Even then it does not quite fit because this is a work with some fire in its veins. The composer likened its style to Raff but for me it is a dashing and poetic blend of Russian romance (vintage Tchaikovsky and Rimsky in Sheherazade mode – try 09.03 in the first movement) and Straussian panache of a type Bax also used in the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy.
There is only one other recording – a perfectly good and enjoyable version on Chandos. Lydia Mordkovich (the Chandos soloist and a most welcome and imaginative regular on that label) does not imbue the work with quite the ferocity that Eda Kersey finds. The last time I heard anything approaching this was Dennis Simons version, impetuous and poetic, broadcast by BBC Radio 3 circa 1979 in which the BBC Northern Symphony were conducted by that very fine Baxian, Raymond Leppard (still Indianapolis-based?). Now that is one broadcast that cries out for commercial release. Ferocity in Bax can be glimpsed in many of the older school conductors’ efforts as in the case of Stanford Robinson’s Bax 5 and Eugene Goossens’ Bax 2 – both BBC tapes from the 1950s and early 1960s. Goossens’ devastatingly gripping Tintagel with the New SO on 1930s 78s is also an object lesson in what Bax scores can gain from keeping things moving forward.
Kersey was to die in 1944 at the age of only 40. How sad a loss! It would have been wonderful if her version of the Arthur Benjamin Romantic Fantasy premiere had been similarly recorded by the BBC. The Fantasy was dedicated to Bax and the two corresponded regularly.
The recording of the concerto is in muscular mono prone to only one blemish: when the orchestra rises above ff on emphatic music the treble stratum succumbs to a shredded or shattery quality likely to be noticeable only if listening on headphones. Otherwise the audio image is stable and without fault though unsubtle by comparison with the Symphony’s commercial recording.
The Barbirolli Bax 3 is likely to be an old friend to many Baxians. First issued in 1944 under the auspices of the British Council, it was finally issued on LP by EMI in the 1980s. In the 1990s it reappeared (though with a very short lease) in 1992 on EMI CDH 7 63910 2 (ADD) on the Great Recordings of the Century series. When the original 78s had been deleted their place had been filled (after a fashion and after years of silence) by Edward Downes’ LSO recording on an RCA LP — later reissued on the Gold Label series in circa 1977 (the year of the Silver Jubilee in the UK).
For this Baxian, the Third Symphony counts as one of the most static of the seven – a natural partner to the Seventh. Its rhapsodic Russophile sympathies are much in evidence with hints throughout of Rimsky’s Antar and Russian Easter Festival and of Stravinsky’s Firebird. I would tend to bracket it with his own Spring Fire, Bantock’s Pagan Symphony and Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral rather than with the dynamic turbulent front-runners of the 1930s such as the Moeran, Walton 1, VW4 and Bax’s own 5 and 6.
Barbirolli invests the Symphony with great feeling – molto passione. Every detail is attended to with great and amorous care. Has the anvil blow at the crown of the first movement resounded as satisfyingly in any other recording – I think not?
The dedicatee of the Symphony (Sir Henry Wood) can be heard in a tantalising fragment of a Queen’s Hall rehearsal of the Third on a Symposium CD. His illness since the late 1930s (he was to die during the Summer of 1944) robbed us of a Wood-conducted Bax 3. It would not at all surprise me to discover that EMI had approached Wood before Barbirolli who had, comparatively recently, returned to war-scarred Britain from his spell with the New York Philharmonic Symphony.
The symphony’s recording sessions were presided over by Walter Legge and the intrinsic sound captured is much better rendered on the Dutton than on the EMI. From this point of view Dutton Laboratories have done a better transfer and remastering job than Peter Bown and John Holland for EMI Classics almost a decade ago. Taking one example: the bed of 78 hiss and burble, faithfully present in the middle background in the EMI, has been lowered substantially. Miraculously cyclical disc rotation blemishes have been neatly elided. Compare from 08.00 to 09.00 in the first movement in the EMI as against the Dutton. There is evidence here that the Dutton is the most solicitous and beguiling transfer this recording has had. It makes you wonder what the next generation of processing a decade down the road will have achieved.
The Dutton is a de rigueur addition for all Baxians and an antidote to the sleepy sloppy school of Baxian interpretation.
Copyright © Rob Barnett
Review by Graham Parlett
This is one of the most important historical issues of Bax’s music to be released on CD. Barbirolli’s famous recording of the Third Symphony has been unavailable for several years now, while the BBC recording of Eda Kersey playing the Violin Concerto-only its second performance-has never been commercially issued before in any format, though it was broadcast in 1995 on Radio 3. Before reviewing the recording itself, I thought it might be useful to give some information on the history of the concerto, a work that was quite popular in the 1940s but has since failed to find a place for itself in the concert hall.
In November 1932 Bax was engaged in orchestrating his Cello Concerto for the Spaniard Gaspar Cassadó, and when he received a letter from the violinist May Harrison asking him to compose a concerto for her, he demurred: ‘I don’t feel that I could start something else in the thick of this cello concerto’, he replied. ‘Besides violin and orchestra is I think about the most difficult thing that a non-string player could make a mess of. The standard is so high, remembering the Brahms concerto.’ (Incidentally, May Harrison had a permanent crush on Bax, and one wonders what prompted his remark a few sentences later: ‘Do you really think men look their best in bed? How unexpected!!’.)
Although by this time Bax had written at least seven works for violin and piano, including the three published sonatas, he was himself a pianist and, apart from some violin lessons as a child, had no practical experience of strings: ‘I could no more make a speech’, he once wrote, ‘than play a stringed instrument.’ Nevertheless, the idea of writing a Violin Concerto, which May Harrison had first suggested, did finally come to fruition a few years later, albeit in connection with another, more celebrated virtuoso.
According to Lewis Foreman’s biography, Bax began writing his Violin Concerto in June 1936 and completed the short score in October 1937, basing part of the slow movement on his recently completed 18th-century pastiche Piano Sonata in B flat (‘Salzburg’). He finished the orchestration of the first movement on 27 February 1938 in Morar, Scotland, and by the end of March the work had been completed. The full score manuscript bears a dedication ‘To Jascha Heifetz’ (not ‘To Firenze’, as given in the CD notes), but this is omitted from the violin-and-piano version published in 1946. Heifetz had published an arrangement for violin and piano of Bax’s Mediterranean in 1935, and it is possible that he had then commissioned Bax to write a concerto for him, though no correspondence between them seems to have survived to confirm this suggestion, and it may be that he wrote it off his own bat and then inscribed it to the great violinist, hoping that he would take it up. Whatever the precise circumstances, it would appear that Heifetz looked through the concerto but found it not to his taste; it lacked the quality of showmanship that suited his style of playing and there is no evidence that he ever performed it. In a letter to Gramophone (April 1995, pp. 6 and 9) a reader recounted the story told to him by an old orchestral player that Heifetz had made a trial recording of the first two movements early in 1937 with the London Symphony Orchestra and John Barbirolli and that it was after his return to America that he decided not to perform the work in public. However, as we have seen, the score was not completed until March 1938 and there is no other evidence to corroborate the story. In a review of the Chandos recording of Bax’s concerto, David C.F. Wright commented: ‘An American friend of mine who was close to Heifetz told me that it was the last movement that was not liked.’
Having had the score rejected by its dedicatee, Bax put it on one side and began work on other projects, notably the Seventh Symphony, completed in January 1939. But the outbreak of war put paid to creative activity, and it was not until his appointment as Master of the King’s Music in February 1942 that he was propelled into composition again, starting with his first film score, Malta, G.C.
On 22 December that year Arthur Bliss, then Director of Music at the BBC, wrote a letter to Bax formally commissioning him to write a Violin Concerto, though it is likely that Bliss already knew that such a work had already been completed. The score received its first performance exactly eleven months later, on 22 November 1943, at a St Cecilia’s Day Concert, with the violinist Eda Kersey accompanied by the BBC Symphony under Sir Henry Wood. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that five distinguished British composers all had recently composed violin concertos performed within a few years of each other: Bax (1937-8, played 1943), Britten (1939, played 1941), Dyson (1941, played 1942), Moeran (1937-42, played 1942) and Walton (1938-9, played in London 1941). Bax’s concerto was broadcast live on the BBC Home Service and a recording is preserved in the BBC archives. A second performance, this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra ‘A’ conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, was broadcast from the Corn Exchange, Bedford, on 23 February 1944, and it is this live performance that is now being issued. But time was running out for Eda Kersey, and five months later, on 13 July, she died suddenly at the age of forty.
After her death, Bax’s concerto was taken up by other soloists, such as Frederick Grinke and Marie Wilson, and indeed its popularity began to irk Bax, who regretted its exposure at the expense of his symphonies. The work’s light-weight character came as something of a shock after the drama of the symphonies. As William Mann put it: ‘Bax’s violin concerto sprang surprises in plenty on those who attended its first performance expecting to hear a thickly-scored, highly-coloured, perhaps diffuse rhapsody-something like a long, accompanied cadenza’. Bax himself clearly thought it was stylistically different from many of his other works when he told Philip Latham that it was ‘rather like Raff’. The unusual tripartite structure of the first movement, labelled Overture, Ballad and Scherzo, also drew much comment, though in fact it bears a vague resemblance to traditional academic sonata form if we regard the Overture as the exposition of the so-called first-subject group, the Ballad the second-subject group, and the Scherzo a kind of development ‘making mock of the themes of the first part’, to borrow from Bax’s programme note. ‘Finally’, he continues, ‘there are triumphant restatements of the chief themes of the Overture and Ballad’-in other words a kind of truncated ‘recapitulation’. Although generally well received at the time, not all critics have reacted positively to the work’s charms, and even the ardent Baxophile Peter J. Pirie could write of it: ‘Some of Bax’s worst faults are on display in this rather cheap piece’.
In the years following Bax’s death (in 1953) the concerto fell into neglect, along with most of his other music. On 6 February 1957, André Gertler with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent revived it in a fine performance at the Royal Festival Hall, an event fortunately preserved on tape and thus my own first introduction to the work. Hugh Bean and the BBC Welsh Orchestra under Vernon Handley broadcast it on 24 June 1975, and it was also broadcast on 13 November 1980 by Dennis Simons with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra under Raymond Leppard, though neither performance did the score justice. (Simons, by the way, is the only violinist to play the passage in the piano score starting at bar 9 after letter (X), third movement, which is actually a solo for the second trumpet mistakenly printed in the violin part.)
On an absolutely sweltering night in August 1983 Manoug Parikian and Bryden Thomson with the BBC Welsh Orchestra gave a rather uninspired performance at a Promenade Concert; in fact the most exciting feature was the chilling, banshee-like sound suddenly emitted by a member of the audience as she fainted from the heat during the Scherzo section of the first movement. Ralph Holmes, who was a notable champion of the work, was planning to record it in 1984 with Vernon Handley when a brain tumour brought his life to a tragic and premature end. Three years later, on 13 June 1987, Parikian’s pupil Alan Brind, a Young Musician of the Year winner, played it at a concert in Norwich Cathedral with the University of East Anglia Student Symphony Orchestra under Mark Fleming, reinstating the second of the two cut passages in the slow movement. On 28 January 1990 John McLaughlin Williams, with the Pro Arte Orchestra of Boston, gave an exhilarating performance in what was believed to be the American première, this time using Bax’s final, cut version. Lydia Mordkovitch’s fine recording with the LPO under Bryden Thomson followed in 1991, with the second and third cut passages reinstated, and more recently Nigel Kennedy has expressed interest in recording the work with Vernon Handley (see the interview with him in Gramophone for December 2000).
Athough Bax’s Violin Concerto has been played more frequently than the Cello Concerto and the Phantasy for viola and orchestra (another work championed by Ralph Holmes), it has certainly not entered the repertoire in the way that another attractive, warmly romantic work has. I refer to Samuel Barber’s concerto, which, incidentally, was given its UK première by Eda Kersey at a Promenade concert in 1943; the two composers were personally acquainted, and Bax is said to have admired Barber’s music. But then British violin concertos, apart from the Elgar, have never been among their composers’ most often performed works: one thinks of Vaughan Williams and Britten among the more famous figures, while the fine concertos of Stanford, Brian, Dyson, Moeran, Stevens, Benjamin and Veale have fared no better, though at least most of them have now been commercially recorded (the Veale only very recently).
There are three written sources for Bax’s Violin Concerto: (1) the full score manuscript now in the British Library (Add. MS. 54757); (2) the published arrangement for violin and piano originally issued by Chappell & Co. Ltd. in 1946 and now available from the Studio Music Company; (3) a copyist’s score of the separate violin part with annotations in Bax’s hand, found inside a copy of the printed violin-and-piano arrangement formerly belonging to the violinist Orrea Pernel, which I bought from Travis & Emery in 1996. Bax’s original sketches and short score are lost except for a brief sketch for the opening of the slow movement which can be found on the MS of the ‘Salzburg’ Sonata.
In 1991, in preparation for Lydia Mordkovitch’s recording for Chandos, I spent many hours collating a copy of the printed violin-and-piano arrangement with the full-score MS and made many corrections to it that Bax had failed to notice when he proof-read it. These ranged from missing slurs to wrong notes and note-values. I also made a piano reduction of the three cut passages that only appear in the MS and inserted them into a copy of the published score, although a few notes in the first passage were illegible in the photocopy I had been given and I left them blank to be filled in by the Librarian at Chappell’s Hire Library, which he failed to do. (For anyone owning the violin-and-piano score, it may be helpful to know that the cut passages occur between bars 6 and 7 on p.32 (16 bars), between the last bar of p.33 and the first of p.34 (12 bars), and between bars 4 and 5 of p.48 (43 bars).) But in any case, when I attended the Chandos recording session at St Jude’s Church, Golders Green, on 23 June, I found that my work had all been in vain: the soloist had been sent an uncorrected copy from which to learn the piece (though a photocopy of one of the three cut passages had been added), which means that the work’s only modern recording contains many inaccuracies. These, I hasten to add, are not the fault of the soloist, who recorded another of the cut passages at the session having only set eyes on it a few minutes before. The question of whether it is morally defensible to restore cuts made by the composer can be argued over at length. It seems to me that the cuts in both the Violin Concerto and Winter Legends improve the structure of each work, and from that point of view I feel that they should be made. Nevertheless, it is always interesting to be able to hear passages that the composer later deleted, and nobody with an interest in British music would now wish to be without, for instance, the recently released original version of Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony; and it would fascinating one day to hear the passages that Bax deleted from his full-score MS of the Third Symphony.
The violin part that I later bought from Travis & Emery is of great interest in that it includes the three passages that were cut in the published version and has expression and dynamic markings in Bax’s hand that do not appear in either the full score or the piano score. I have not so far traced any performance by the former owner, Orrea Pernel, and am inclined to think that it is the handwritten copy from which Eda Kersey learnt the part three years before it was printed. A few minor details support this suggestion. For instance, in her recording Kersey plays the grace note in the second bar after letter (G) in the second movement as an F sharp, and this is the note written in the copyist’s score and probably also in the full-score manuscript, where it is not quite clear; in the printed score, it is a G sharp. The three cut passages have fingerings pencilled in, suggesting that the first play-through, at least, was complete. However, a copy of the BBC recording with Wood conducting is preserved in the National Sound Archive (ref. T11048W) and reveals that the cuts had been made before the first public performance. Whether they were made by Bax after a preliminary run-through with piano or in consultation with Wood at an orchestral rehearsal is not known. This world première, incidentally, is generally a slower performance than under Boult, noticeably in the second movement and the Slow Valse section of the finale.
There is no doubt that Bax’s Violin Concerto is in urgent need of a thorough textual overhaul: the score hired out to conductors is a photocopy of the MS, which itself is in poor condition; the orchestral parts are the original 1943 handwritten ones; and the printed violin part is riddled with mistakes and lacks the three cut passages. Music publishers are naturally more interested in making profits than in making sure that their materials are accurate, and the chances of Warner Chappell’s producing a scholarly edition of the work are remote, though I would leap at the opportunity of editing it myself if asked to do so.
The violinist Eda Kersey is little known today but was much admired in her lifetime as both a soloist and a chamber-music player. Born in Goodmayes, Essex, in 1904, she started learning the violin at the age of six, and gave a concert performance of the first movement of Wienawski’s Concerto in D minor at ten-and-a-half. She made her London début at the Æolian Hall in 1920, when she was sixteen, and her Proms début ten years later playing the Beethoven concerto. In the early 1930s, together with the cellist Helen Just, she became a member of Howard Ferguson’s piano trio, and she was also a member of the Trio Players with Gerald Moore and Cedric Sharpe. She also played with Brosa, Casals, Sammons and Suggia, and her repertoire included concertos by Bach, Barber, Beethoven, Brahms, Delius, Dohnányi, Elgar, Mendelssohn, Sibelius and Vaughan Williams. According to an article by Albert Cooper in The Strad (May 1984, p.51), she has been called the ‘Kathleen Ferrier of the violin’ and was renowned for the lyrical qualities of her playing, her security in double-stopping, the clarity of her passage work, and for her presence and composure on the concert platform. Cooper also maintains that ‘Bax was inspired to complete his concerto after many years on hearing Kersey play his sonatas’. This is not quite true-the score was complete by March 1938-but it suggests at least that the composer saw her as the ideal person to give the first performance of a work that he had had languishing in his bottom drawer for nearly five years. Her sudden death on 13 July 1944, only a few weeks after she had given a recital with Kathleen Long at a National Gallery Concert, must have been a sad blow not only for Bax but for the musical life of wartime Britain.
Eda Kersey made a number of commercial recordings, and a few other performances by her are preserved in the National Sound Archive, but until now there were no examples of her playing on CD. One feature of her performance of Bax’s Violin Concerto that immediately stands out is its fast tempi. The outer movements are taken at a cracking pace, in sharp contrast with some of the performances broadcast in the 1970s and ’80s, which were far too cautious and sedate, not to say dreary. I suppose it could be argued that the opening orchestral introduction to the second movement is a little too fast for an Adagio, almost as if Boult found it rather dull and wanted to move on. (We should remember that he was not one of Bax’s greatest admirers, though he was the dedicatee of the Sixth Symphony and their personal relationship was always warm and friendly.) Nevertheless, he does bring to the rest of the concerto a vigour and a sparkle that eludes most other conductors, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is how the concerto should be played. Eda Kersey’s comparatively light tone suits the work well, and the virtuosity of her playing yields nothing to that of other, more famous names. She brings an irresistible joie-de-vivre to the first movement’s Scherzo and to the dancing finale and is adept at subtle changes of mood, as in the lusingando (‘coaxing’, ‘beguiling’) melody in thirds after the energetic opening passage; other soloists slow down here to deadly effect, but Kersey keeps the music moving without making it sound rushed.
The quality of the recording is astonishingly good for its age. There is little background noise, and I even heard details in the work that I had not noticed before. The orchestral sound is often quite beefy: the vamping chords just before the first entry of the soloist, for example, have never seemed richer or more incisive; there is a wonderfully perky oboe solo in the Scherzo just after (BB); while the tenor drum’s unexpected and barbaric appearance at bar 9 after letter (F) in the finale comes across with startling vividness.
The coupling, Barbirolli’s recording of the Third Symphony (produced by Walter Legge) is too well-known to require any further praise. Bax attended the sessions, and the performance certainly reflects his wishes to a large extent: ‘These records were made after days of intensive rehearsal under the personal supervision of the composer, who has expressed his entire satisfaction with the performance and players’ (His Master’s Voice Record Supplement, February 1944, p.2). Once again the Dutton transfer could hardly be bettered, with the surface noise of the original 78 rpm discs reduced to an absolute minimum, even revealing the odd studio noise from those sessions of nearly sixty years ago in the Houldsworth Hall, Manchester, which, as mentioned in the CD notes, Bax found insufferably cramped and overheated. I did a direct comparison with the EMI CD issued in 1992 (and soon deleted) and noticed that the latter had significantly more background noise. I am also glad to see that Dutton have reinstated the half-bar that EMI carelessly left out of their CD reissue at one bar before figure (5) in the slow movement, where there was a side break on the 78s. I have long known this performance from those old discs, and it says much for the Dutton engineers’ skill that in many places I failed to notice where the breaks originally came. As a matter of economic interest, the original set of six shellac discs cost £1-19s-9d in the old currency (i.e. approximately £1.99), which in 1944 had the same purchasing power as about £54 today. In other words each disc, playing on average for less than four minutes a side, cost the present-day equivalent of about £9, a sobering thought for any of us who are tempted to complain about the high price of CDs in the UK.
This is a magnificent release which is enhanced by Lewis Foreman’s informative notes-he even names the bassoon and horn soloists in the wartime Hallé Orchestra-and by the striking booklet illustration aptly featuring a London Transport poster of 1944. Warmest congratulations to Dutton. I hope that they will soon be turning their attention to the Griller Quartet’s incomparable recording of the First String Quartet.
Copyright © Graham Parlett