A rare outing for Bax’s Third Symphony in Sheffield

United Kingdom Various: Sheffield Symphony Orchestra / Juan Ortuño (conductor). All Saints Ecclesall Parish Church, Ecclesall, Sheffield, 10.6.2023. (RBa)

Juan Ortuño conducts the Sheffield Symphony Orchestra

SmythThe Wreckers: Overture
ButterworthThe Banks of Green Willow
MacCunnLand of the Mountain and the Flood
Coleridge-TaylorThe Bamboula, Op.75 (Rhapsodic Dance No.1)
Bax – Symphony No.3

The last time I was in Sheffield, about 18 years ago, the very same Sheffield Symphony Orchestra played Ernest Moeran’s Symphony in G minor. The conductor was John Longstaff, who I was delighted to see is still associated with the orchestra. That was the first and only time I attended a concert to hear that symphony live, at St Marks in Sheffield. It is a great work, life-imbued and imbuing. Hearing it in concert – and at the rehearsals which I sidled into – was overpowering, and for me a life event comparable with hearing Havergal Brian’s Gothic at the Royal Albert Hall under Ole Schmidt. The Moeran programme included Arnold Bax’s Tintagel, and that was also the first time I had heard it ‘in the flesh’, as it were.

The programme was led by the Spanish conductor Juan Ortuño. He brims with artless enthusiasm and self-sacrificing enthusiasm, and there is no pasty-faced caution about him. He made a light joke of his pronunciation of MacCunn’s first name as ‘Hammish’, which a well-wisher had assured him was HAYmish. Unsurprisingly, on the podium he leans more towards the flamboyantly impassioned and involved mobile Bernstein school than impassive minim-gestured ‘less is more’ Boult school. During the Bamboula piece, he almost danced, and in his introduction encouraged dancing in the church. Last time I saw this style was in Liverpool at a rare concert under Carlos Miguel Prieto.

The programme was, unusually, an almost all-UK event. It successfully side-stepped the obvious. Representative choices amongst the composers? Well, one female, one with Sierra Leonean DNA, one Scot, two English (the very English Butterworth, and Bax who also identified strongly with the wilder Irish, Scottish and Nordic sides). Only the Welsh were left out, although the Cornish Celts had some voice in Smyth’s piece. The programme made a coincidental connection with a 1968 EMI LP (ASD2400) with Alexander Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra. This has been much reissued, latterly on Classics for Pleasure in the noughties. The LP included music of the four UK countries, Smyth’s and MacCunn’s overtures included. This might have stirred some ticket sales and some memories. Bax’s Third Symphony has been out on 78 (John Barbirolli), LP (Edward Downes and David Measham) and CD (Vernon Handley, David Lloyd-Jones and Bryden Thomson). It also – for me, dubiously – wears the crown as the most popular/finest of the Bax symphonies.

Before each work, Ortuño made a small announcement in a relaxed style to the audience which modestly filled 35-40 per cent of the bench seating. It was a warm early summer Saturday evening, so perhaps there were other distractions. Also, for me, the journey across the Derbyshire moorland Snake Road was not exactly an inducement but … almost anything to hear a Bax symphony. I recall one of the BBC Proms in the 1980s, conducted by Raymond Leppard, included Bax’s Fifth Symphony, and was quite sparsely attended.

After the conductor’s whistle-stop tour of the Cornish plot of Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers we plunged – yes – into the Prelude. It is deeply and densely tempestuous stuff for the most part, with oodles of dazzling Blitzen and deafening Donner. The Wagnerian effect recalls Der fliegende Holländer. Melodramatic is the word. It called to mind the climax of Charles Kingsley’s unfashionable novel Westward Ho!, where ‘our hero’ Amyas Leigh, possessed by exacting vengeance, is at the moment of his victory blinded by God’s lightning: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’

After all this blood and thunder came George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow. This puts behind us the nineteenth-century’s brown Windsor soup. It captures and expresses – in pellucid orchestration – clarity, blue skies and clear fresh air, all with just a dash of poignant melancholia. It is masterly stuff. No wonder that Ralph Vaughan Wililiams dedicated A London Symphony to Butterworth.

Hamish McCunn, with a touch slightly defter than Smyth, took us to The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. It sounds essentially like Brahms; I thought of his First Symphony several times. That broad melody broadly stated is a gift to audiences. As a whole, Ortuña really got the real swing of the thing. Not the orchestra’s fault, but I am not convinced by the excessively mechanical and incessantly repetitive use of the cymbals. This compared unfavourably with Bax’s single hammer/anvil exclamation mark in the symphony, all the more telling because it is deployed once and at the right moment.

The first half of the concert closed with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Bamboula, with roots, we are told, in dances from Haiti and San Domingo. It too had its slightly matte impenetrable (but luckily fleeting) moments. Predominantly there is a superior Dvořák-like dreamy vigour and a luxuriance of dancing detail. By the way, the Czech parallels are even more to the point in Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto.

After the interval came one work, Bax’s Third Symphony from 1929, and the reason I attended the concert. (In the last couple of years I have heard Bax’s Third twice, and his First and Fourth once, whilst Bromley Symphony Orchestra’s proposed outing for the glorious Bax Sixth was presumably cancelled recently due to the pandemic.) In his brief preceding talk, Ortuño outlined three ‘landmarks’ in the work to help people acclimatise to what was likely unknown territory: the ringing single strike of hammer on anvil at the peak of the first movement; the delicious violin, woodwind, celesta and harp/bell decoration in the middle movement; and the verve and attack of the writing at the start of the finale.

There is quite a bit of slow music in this work but it is all inventively changeable, and it teeters on the edge between the quotidian and ineffable ecstasy. Across the three movements, Bax opens casement after magic casement on fairy vistas. This is more closely related to the sensuality, revelry and menace of Mily Balakirev’s Thamar and Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird than to sweetie-pie fairies with Disney-gossamer wings. There is faster music, too. When it appeared, the performance induced the right amount of propellant. One instance is the uncannily familiar writing five minutes into the finale. Had Bax been monetarily possessed by the wraith of Rimsky-Korsakov and his Russian Easter Festival? Another is a barbarian dance which I have always associated with the words ‘We grow chickens in our backyard’. Don’t ask. It makes no sense.

At the close of the work, in the first of Bax’s ‘hallmark’ epilogues, the sun sinks into the far West. What should have been the world-weary tread of the music was taken, I felt, a shade too quickly. Then again I have been brought up on Bax’s Thirds in the hands of Malcolm Sargent, Norman Del Mar and Maurice Handford. This demerit apart from a few wobbles in the brass and a curdled density wrought by the resonant church acoustic sometimes conspired against the already iron-clad orchestration.

It is 140 years since Bax’s birth and 70 since his death. Ingrate that I am, I still wished Juan Ortuña did Bax Sixth or Fifth or even First, which is mentioned as a possibility at the back of the concert programme. I welcome any Bax symphony in concert.

Rob Barnett

2 thoughts on “A rare outing for Bax’s Third Symphony in Sheffield”

  1. This is a lovely and disarmingly engaging review. Almost thou persuadest me, Rob, to go out and find some Bax to listen to.

  2. Leave it to that Baxian ‘extraordinare’ Rob Barnett to provide such a vivid and informed review of what sounds like a truly worthwhile event. I’m always astonished — but not surprised — by Rob’s encyclopedic knowledge of music, too. I truly do treasure his reviews. And how wonderful of the Sheffield Symphony Orchestra to schedule such a daring program. Can you imagine one of the great London orchestras doing the same thing? Sadly, no. You’ll look in vain to find any Bax, Butterworth, Bridge, Moeran or Ireland in any of their concert schedules for the coming year. So thank you Sheffield SO and conductor Juan Ortuño for righting an ongoing wrong and promoting such fabulous but neglected British music.


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