The music of Arnold Bax has long been out of fashion so it was a rare treat to hear his November Woods which opened the BBC Philharmonic’s all-English programme conducted by John Wilson on Saturday night. The title suggests something gentle but these woods are, to judge by the music, being lashed by a storm, a match for the tempestuousness of the composer’s love-life. Bax himself linked the two, as the excellent programme notes for the concert informed us. “The whole piece and its origins are connected with rather troublous experiences I was going through myself at the time and the mood of the Buckinghamshire wood where the idea of this work came seemed to sound a similar chord, as it were.” The gentle breeze of the opening bars quickly becomes more threatening and we can hear the wind racing through the trees. The middle section is gentler with some lovely melodies – “a dream of happier days,” according to Bax – before the turbulent mood returns. The ending is eerie: reviewing the damage done by the storm, perhaps. Bax’s masterly use of a large orchestra creates remarkable effects, none more so than the combination of muted trumpets with harps at the end. Wilson managed the gusting and surging of the storm so that the orchestra became a force of nature.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

Whereas Bax drew inspiration from the Celtic world, William Walton’s muse was Italy. His Violin Concerto in B minor was partly written in Ravello and has an Italian warmth. Canadian violinist James Ehnes joined the orchestra for this performance. He gives the impression of being a reflective, reserved performer and Walton’s concerto suited him perfectly. The opening of the work is rather subdued, giving a long dreamy melody to the violin which Ehnes made flow calmly. This was suddenly interrupted by an aggressive outburst from the side drum, forcing the soloist to respond in an agitated manner and then to calm proceedings down. Such changes of atmosphere are characteristic of the work. 

The second movement is a Scherzo and again we had many changes of mood including a frenetic tarantella (said to have been inspired when Walton was bitten by a tarantula in Italy), a sweet waltz and gentler central section. Here soloist and conductor seemed in complete accord in veering from one mood to another, bringing out the humour of the piece. The finale, too, jumped from the lyrical intensity to ironic aggression with great rhythmic variety. Ehnes’s sweet-toned playing gripped the audience right to its unexpected ending.

There was more to come though. Ehnes returned to the stage and as an encore gave a dazzling performance of Eugène Ysaÿe’s fiendishly demanding Sonata no. 3 and then, as “an antidote to the previous piece” as Ehnes introduced it, the slow movement from Bach’s Sonata no. 3.

“I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant” is Vaughan Williams’ oft-quoted comment about his Symphony no. 4 in F minor, and since its first performance in 1935 commentators and audiences have been discussing what, if anything, it does “mean”, but without reaching a conclusion. What is clear, however, is that they do like it, perhaps more now than when it was new. The grinding dissonance of the opening is no longer shocking and its irregular rhythms are considered more appealing than confusing. The BBC Philharmonic and Wilson gave a superb account of this powerful and intense work, drawing a brightness from the orchestra which gave the music an extra dimension. The brass could now sound sinister, now celebratory. Wilson kept control of the taut rhythms and the changes of volume. The predominantly quiet second movement never flagged. The third movement Scherzo was striking for its sarcastic humour. The remarkable finale was exhilarating and disturbing in equal measure. The symphony was a stunning experience, as was the whole concert.

****1