Bax & Bate Cello Concertos

The first of his pieces for solo instrument and orchestra which Bax officially designated a ‘concerto’ was the Cello Concerto of 1932. In the Cello Concerto, the instrument is centre stage virtually from beginning to end and the composer takes great pains to ensure that it is clearly audible at all times. To accomplish this, he uses modest forces: three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, harp, celesta and strings. By the composer’s usual standards, this orchestration is notably restrained, with an absence of trombones and tuba and only two trumpets, the second of which does not feature at all in the first movement. When supporting the soloist, textures often take on the transparency of chamber music and are varied with such invention and flair (including much creative use of divided strings) that we rarely encounter the same combination of instruments accompanying the cellist for two phrases in succession.

Before he wrote his Cello Concerto in 1953, Bate had produced a couple of instrumental works for cello and piano, consisting of a Recitative, op.52a (1945), and a Fantasy, op.56 (1947). The fluency of his writing in the concerto suggests that the composer had a natural empathy with the solo instrument’s lyrical and declamatory nature. It was premiered in late 1954 by the Eastman Rochester Orchestra at the Eastman School of Music, New York. Compact and sparingly scored, Bate’s concerto maintains the spotlight firmly on the soloist throughout. A sizeable orchestra is rarely exerted at full stretch and then only fleetingly. It is made up of two flutes, two oboes, clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals and strings.

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Plymouth-born Stanley Bate (1911-1959) was a highly talented youngster, an excellent pianist, and he had already composed a couple of operas by his twentieth year. He was a pupil first of Vaughan Williams, Gordon Jacob and Arthur Benjamin in London, and then of Paul Hindemith and Nadia Boulanger in Europe. Bate was married to the Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and the two had a somewhat nomadic career, working in London, Australia and, with especial success as far as he was concerned, in the United States.

Bate’s Cello Concerto does make for rewarding listening though, despite not reaching the heights of his best works, such as the Third Symphony. The Concerto’s first movement alternates between dark colours and a perky motif, the second is a quite beautiful song for the cello with some fiercely demanding writing in the middle section, during which Lionel Handy demonstrates his excellent technique. An optimistic Finale concludes this easily approachable music.

Arnold Bax's Cello Concerto, 1934, followed a request from Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966) who gave the first performance. Beatrice Harrison played the Concerto a good deal. It is now one of Bax's unjustly neglected works. The first movement is substantial, alternating between the dark and mournful and the upbeat and lively. Bax's orchestra is smaller than his usual, though the effects he produces are as varied, inventive and magical as those for larger forces. The RSNO's strings and woodwinds turn in beautifully played and sympathetic conversations with the cello, and Bax's writing for the harp shines through. The slow movement contains some of Bax's deeply-felt writing and delightful orchestration. The energetic and powerful Finale produces further contrasts.

The balance between cello and orchestra in both works is well gauged. Handy is not too spot-lit, and orchestral details are clear. There is enough of the acoustic to give warmth to the sound and allow the music to breathe, and the final result a model of clarity. On Chandos, Raphael Wallfisch, Bryden Thomson conducting, are perhaps a mite more romantic and less reserved, and their recording is very well-upholstered. For Lyrita, Paul Conway has written an exemplary essay. This is a valuable addition to Lyrita's list, giving us a fine version of the Bax, and the first recording of Bate's diverting and entertaining Concerto. Classical Source

These are excellently delivered [works] by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Martin Yates; and if the solo part's technical demands in the very opening stages hint at stretching even Lionel Handy's huge expertise, his delivery of the rest of the work is state-of-the-art. BBC Music Magazine, Feb 2016

With strong assurance the Royal Scottish National Orchestra excels under Martin Yates and provides sensitive accompaniment throughout. Reviving two worthy English cello concertos Lyrita continues to do English music a great service. Michael Cookson, Musicweb-international

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