MUSIC / Bax to the future: Anthony Payne on rare Bliss and Bax, at the South Bank and in Guildford

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The Independent Culture
Those fascinated by the neglected by-paths of mid- 20th-century music were given two rare opportunities to refresh their memories last week: performances of big concertos by Bax and Bliss which, as on other occasions, led one to question our concert halls' indifference to the country's musical heritage.

First, in a Festival Hall concert celebrating the memory of Sir Charles Groves - that determined champion of English music - the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra programmed Bliss's Cello Concerto, written for Rostropovich to play at the 1970 Aldeburgh Festival with Britten conducting.

By then, already in his late seventies, Bliss seemed to many to be a spent force, overtaken by changing fashions. But after his early iconoclastic pieces, he had always been something of a conservative. With the passing of time, such considerations become increasingly unimportant. Much more striking than the Cello Concerto's anachronistic style is its structural cogency, lively invention and individual sound world; and unimpeded by questions of fashion, these qualities are at last able to speak clearly.

With Robert Cohen as a sensitive soloist, we heard a performance alive to the subtle emotional resonances Bliss commanded in old age. Maturity seems to have rid his music of its earlier turbulence, but there is still a remarkable youthful-sounding vitality. The bold first movement offsets its broad improvisatory freshness with a cogent dialectic, while the Larghetto progresses from touching simplicity to a deeper, more complex lyricism. It is a work that ill deserves its present neglect.

Barry Wordsworth and the orchestra responded eagerly to its luminous, classically proportioned textures, and later gave a fine performance of Elgar's Enigma Variations, especially poetic in moments of chamber-music-like intimacy. There was also a rapt interpretation of Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending, with Jonathan Carney a sweetly warbling violin soloist.

Three days later and 30 miles down the road in the Civic Hall, Guildford, Vernon Handley, another indefatigable interpreter of English music, was resurrecting a fascinating work which, though successfully recorded, is practically never heard in the concert hall. Bax's Winter Legends for piano and orchestra was described by the composer as a sinfonia concertante, too discursive to be numbered among the symphonies, but avoiding the solo-tutti relationship of the traditional concerto.

Ironically, however, the work does share many characteristics with the symphonies, where Bax was certainly not averse to discursive processes: it's in the customary three movements with epilogue, and its Nordic feeling and colouring strongly resemble parts of the Third and Fifth symphonies. The music's strength lies in the way Bax manages to sustain thought and concentration despite the episodic manner, and the first movement is a specially successful example of him thinking on the move, controlling a restless improvisatory sequence of events by means of a discernible narrative line.

As always with Bax, the harmonic textures possess uncanny presence - the tuba solo, high, spare string chords and keyboard arpeggios that open the third movement unforgettably. If there are moments where the material outstays its welcome, there is too much of visionary poetry for the work to be allowed to languish. That much was confirmed by Handley and the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra's fine treatment of what is a mightily complex score, and by Margaret Fingerhut's superb concertante piano. Further impressive virtuosity had been in evidence earlier, when Christian Lindberg gave the premiere of Derek Bourgeois's Trombone Concerto in its orchestral version, a work well-calculated to entertain and display.