Saturday June 10, 2023
Sheffield Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Juan Ortuno
Ethel Smyth: The Wrechers Overture
George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow
Hamish McCunn: Land of the Mountain & the Flood
Samuel Coleridge Taylor: The Bamboula, Op. 75 (Rapsodic Dance No. 1)
Arnold Bax: Symphony No. 3
Review by David Parlett
Sheffield in South Yorkshire is a city I have never previously visited and was known to me only as the home of the annual World Snooker championship. But on Saturday 10 June, it proved the unlikely venue for an even more unlikely concert devoted entirely to English music with Bax’s Third Symphony the pièce de résistance. I can’t remember when I last attended a live performance of it, though I do remember it was at Bax’s alma mater the Royal Academy of Music.
The honours on this occasion were done by the Sheffield Symphony Orchestra at Ecclesall Parish Church under its principal conductor Juan Ortuño to an audience of about 100 to 150. Ortuño is a young Spaniard with a very engaging personality and, as became clear from his introductory remarks to each piece, an evident enthusiasm for British music.
We started off with a miscellany of Celtic-related pieces – Smyth’s Overture to The Wreckers, Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, McCrum’s The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, and Coleridge-Taylor’s The Bamboula (Rhapsodic Dance). All very nice, but it did leave me with a feeling of being full of dessert before attempting the main course. How was the tentative and mysterious opening bassoon solo going to sound to those unacquainted with Bax’s oeuvre? There must have been many there of such unacquaintance that it might come to them as something of a disconcertment. In the audience I recognized no one but my companion – probably because they must have been of a younger generation – and wondered whether Andrew Forster-Fake’s programme note beginning “Arnold who?” was quite the right way to go about instilling a sense of eager anticipation in newcomers to the Baxian world.
I’m nowhere near the musicologist that my late brother Graham was, so I’d better start by presenting my credentials for commenting on this work. My first hearing of Bax’s Third came with a BBC radio broadcast of all seven symphonies shortly after Bax’s death in 1953, and I still have the diary in which I recorded my profound reaction to it – especially (dare I admit it?) to the literally striking and pitchless stroke of the anvil at the climax of the recapitulation. Soon afterwards, I stumbled across the classic six-disc 78rpm recording by Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra and within a year or so knew it intimately. It remains my favourite of the cycle, and, perhaps understandably, my benchmark for all subsequent performance appraisals, much as I love the Handley and Thomson readings.
The opening struck me as a little hurried and I would have preferred to linger longer over those introductory twining strands of questioning woodwinds. Once under way, however, the pace became more appropriate, though I would have been happier with greater volume, despite my sitting in the front row and making full use of both hearing aids. The tricky bridge passage linking the slow section to the reprise of opening material passed off convincingly, and the anvil blow well justified Ortuño’s pride in showing it off in advance in his introduction to the work.
The second movement suffered a little from an occasional stuttering on the part of the solo trumpet, and I’m not sure that we got full value from the lush cantabile molto reminiscence of the opening bassoon solo about half way through.
The scherzoid half of the third movement, however, got off to a rollicking good start and kept up the necessary pace throughout. For once I stopped being critical and got completely carried away by it. (I can’t help remarking that the first time I heard its jig-like folksy opening theme, it put me in mind of ‘Tom, Tom the piper’s son’, an heretical reminiscence that I can never get away from.) The epilogue, as always, proved very satisfying, and credit must go to leader Martin Usher’s rendering of that final violin solo.
Overall, I recalled several times the comment in A L Bacharach’ British Music of our Time (1946) that Bax has been accused of ‘muddy’ orchestration, and elsewhere of ‘never writing one note where fifty would do.’ Nevertheless, Juan Ortuño and the Sheffield SO have rendered the ever-hopeful Bax appreciation world a great service in reviving this classic work and I hope we will hear more of both in the future.