The Symphonic Variations, which dates from 1918, was the first of five works that Arnold Bax wrote for piano and orchestra. It has an interesting history in that it was written for Bax's lover, Harriet Cohen, who was a fine pianist, but was limited by small hands and webbed fingers. She gave the premier performance in 1920, however, since she had difficulty with some of the writing, Bax revised the score to suit her. Cohen had exclusive performance rights to the work, but the score was damaged when her house was bombed in 1940, thus ending the possibility of further performances. Fortunately, the original score was reconstructed from a complete set of parts that surfaced in the 1960's after which recordings were made by Joyce Hatto with Vernon Handley in 1970 (nla), and Margaret Fingerhut with Bryden Thomson in 1987 (Bax: Orchestral Works, Vol. 7). This recording by Ashley Wass, the first to appear in over twenty years, is a statement about the ongoing revival of interest in the music of Arnold Bax and the enterprising producers at Naxos, who continue to mine a rich vein of British music from the last century.
To call the Symphonic Variations rhapsodic is an understatement - it's a massive, sprawling thing, which at nearly 46 minutes is the longest work Bax wrote for orchestra. It's not a piano concerto and despite its name is not a set of variations either; it's a series of eight loosely connected atmospheric sketches bearing titles such as Youth, Nocturne, Strife and Enchantment which, as Lewis Foreman observes in his liner notes, "have never been satisfactorily explained." The Symphonic Variations was written during a period of domestic discord in Bax's life (he was soon to leave his wife for Harriet Cohen), and while the passion for Harriet undoubtedly found its way into the music, as did the events of the Great War, the knowledge of this is a footnote when it comes to appreciating the music. It's written in the inimitable language of the composer, with bold strokes, voluptuous in places against a canvas of Baxian "northernness." The music takes it's time to get "somewhere," if anywhere at all, the real destination being the world of sound and impressions. It takes some patience to appreciate this work, which in some ways is too much of a good thing.
The Concertante for Piano (1949) was also written for Harriet Cohen, under rather unusual circumstances. Apparently after the death of Bax's long-estranged wife, Harriet expected that the composer would finally marry her; however, upon learning from Bax that he had another mistress, she dropped a tray of drinks, injuring her right wrist. As a result Bax wrote the Concertante, which is for the left hand, for her. While it makes for a pleasant filler, it's a mere afterthought compared to the weighty Symphonic Variations.
My introduction to the Symphonic Variations was through the Fingerhut recording on Chandos, which I think is a good one. It also has the advantage of coming in a budget two disc set along with Winter Legends, a Bax work for piano and orchestra that outshines the Symphonic Variations. The Wass recording is a very good one too, and given that he has recorded Winter Legends along with the Saga Fragment and Morning Song (to be released in 2011) prospective purchasers might consider picking up the current disc and waiting for Naxos to issue the new one.