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Last Modified: June 20, 1999

Studio Portrait of Sir Arnold Bax in 1945


Symphony No. 2, November Woods
Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.554093

by Ian Lace

November Woods

My reason for reviewing November Woods before the Symphony will become clear later so please bear with me. Bax's Tone Poem November Woods, written in October 1916, not only depicts the turbulence of an Autumn storm as it wracks a woodland but it also reflects the composer's passion for Harriet Cohen. The lovers would meet clandestinely in a small pub in Amersham near the  woods, covering the nearby Chiltern Hills, where Bax had once
sheltered from such a storm.

Bax's poem Amersham sets the scene:

       .....Storm, a mad painter's brush, swept sky and land
        With burning signs of beauty and despair
        And once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake
        And in our hearts tears stung and the old ache
        Was more than any God would have us bear.

         Then in a drowsy town the inn of dreams
         Shuts out awhile October's sky of dread
         Drugged in the wood reek, under the black beams
         Nestled against my arm her little head

The music of November Woods is Bax's musical realisation of the hostile elemental forces and passionate sentiments of these verses. One of Bax's loveliest romantic passages, sensuous, tender and passionate, is bracketed by stormy violence that is both sudden and sustained as boughs creak and branches heave under howling gales, driving rain and flashes of lightning. Lloyd-Jones's evocation is every bit as thrilling and vivid as that of
Boult (on Lyrita SRCD 231). I must say that I also admire Bryden Thomson more leisurely, but not unexciting, approach on CHAN 8307 in really opulent Chandos sound.

Symphony No. 2

Bax's magnificent Symphony No. 2 was written between 1924 and 1926. It is the second episode in the continuing saga that is Bax's seven symphony cycle. Its first movement catapults us straight into the violent world that
was unleashed in the First Symphony (1921-22). As Lewis Foreman stated in his notes for the 1971 Myer Fredman recording of this work (Lyrita LP SRCS. 54): "The mood in this movement is that of November Woods in which an
emotional crisis was depicted in terms of stormy nature, and is even more convincingly argued."  Bax described it as being "heavy with impending catastrophe."  The music is passionate and tempestuous, heavy with conflict
the music tugging and grinding against itself fitfully with only brief moments of respite.

The second movement is reminiscent of Holst in his unworldy mode until Bax quickly asserts his own style with the horn call in the second and third bars. This movement is predominantly lyrical and passionate.  Lewis reminded us that it had been suggested that the whole work might be viewed as "one vast love song." Personally I think this is very much of an over-simplification but certainly the slow movement might qualify for such a description.  Lloyd-Jones realises all its tenderness and passion and his climax hits you with all the force of a tidal wave.  Lloyd-Jones interpretation of this symphony is a triumph - read with scorching, white-heat intensity. The ferocity of the catastrophic finale comes across with great impact. Lloyd-Jones also heeds the detail too. Note that extraordinary passage about 5 minutes into the finale where Bax creates a sound world entirely of his own a magic domain created by imaginative use of harps, tremolando strings in mid-register, percussive piano and close
snare drumming in crescendo.

I would just quote again from Lewis's notes: "The psychological interrelation of the first three symphonies of Bax has often been remarked upon, but is worth restating. The demon that possessed Bax in the First Symphony is really only presented in that work; having relieved himself of its stating, Bax expiates it in this Second Symphony, which can be regarded as a chart of his spiritual and emotional wanderings in the mid 'twenties. Thus in the Third Symphony, written in 1928 and 1929, after the composer had discovered what was to become his artistic retreat at Morar in Scotland, he attempted a stylistic and emotional synthesis finding repose in the serene  Epilogue."

I wonder if Naxos really appreciate the value of their investment in this Lloyd-Jones Bax cycle. The release of its component parts seems slow and widely spaced in the extreme and its presentation with only a four page booklet (with no language translations) seems niggardly. And as yet there seems to be no news of the project's completion.  Keith Anderson's notes are scholarly. He tends to have got lost in the detail of the notes rather than communicating the equally if not more essential human psychological and elemental elements of these works.

My colleague Richard Adams agrees with me that this new Lloyd-Jones album now supersedes the other existing Chandos recording with Bryden Thomson. Personally, I think it is the equal of Myer Fredman's 1971 Lyrita recording which I hope one day we shall be able to more properly assess in a refurbished digital CD edition. As Richard has mentioned, Fredman had the huge advantage of an inspired LPO and a much better recording engineer.
Richard has also commented (and I would generally agree) "...that the sound on the Naxos Bax 2 is inferior to the sound given to Naxos Bax 1 where the strings have much more body.  Bax 2 was recorded first and I suspect Naxos
had not yet figured out how to record in the Glasgow Hall and Lloyd-Jones was relatively new to both the RSNO and Bax.  Given all that, I think he did an admirable job and he certainly displays a strong feeling for Bax and
a command of Bax's symphonic structures." On that last point I agree absolutely!

by Richard R. Adams

Assuming the Bax symphonies will someday receive the popular attention they so obviously deserve,  I predict at least three of his seven symphonies will come to be ranked with those of Elgar and Vaughan Williams as the greatest examples of British music in that form.  While Bax's Third Symphony was for many years his most popular
symphony, its reputation in recent years has suffered (rather unfairly, I think) in comparison with those of the Fifth, Sixth and Second Symphonies which are regarded by most Baxians as his most characteristic and brilliant orchestral works.  Surely, one listen through of this new Naxos recording of Bax's Second Symphony with David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra should convince any sympathetic listener of  Bax's limitless musical imagination and brilliance at writing for a large symphony orchestra.

The Second Symphony is the most deeply personal of Bax's works, which is saying a great deal considering how much of his music is autobiographical. He poured more of himself into this work than any other.  Its composition consumed him for the greater part of two years and at its completion, he said he felt physically and emotionally exhausted.  Any successful performance of this work must convey the deeply troubled state of mind the composer was going through at the time of its composition.  David Lloyd-Jones' performance most certainly succeeds in this regard.  From the unbelievably ominous opening with its bass drum roll and sinister motif for cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon through the middle movement's impassioned outbursts for organ and running strings to that most desolate and  inconsolable of Bax's famous epilogues, Lloyd-Jones' interpretation is one that emphasizes the dramatic and descriptive elements of the score.  His fastidious attention to detail uncovers a wealth of instrumental color and invention.  Naxos has provided a very clean but also very dry recording which allows the listener to hear much more of what is going on in the orchestra than could be heard on the Chandos recording with Bryden Thomson.  I myself would have welcomed a little more ambient warmth which might have provided more richness to the string tone.  The nearly 30-year old recording made by Lyrita with Myer Fredman conducting the London Philharmonic is still the preferred recording in terms of sound.

This budget Naxos recording is in almost every way preferable to the Chandos recording.  Lloyd-Jones' interpretation is as spacious as Thomson's but he is much more successful in navigating the intricate shifts in tempo and mood and, most importantly, in keeping the music moving.  So often with Thomson's Bax the impression  is given of the music being pulled out of shape in order to accommodate that conductor's desire to wallow in Bax's gorgeous harmonic textures.  Lloyd-Jones is a much more disciplined conductor, and like that greatest of all Baxians, Vernon Handley, his aim is clearly set at giving the music shape and assuring that its structure holds together.  Mention should also be made of Fredman's Lyrita account which is currently unavailable.  That fiery performance is a classic and nicely compliments this weightier and more broadly conceived performance.  Its release is an absolute must but in the meantime I want to wish this new Naxos disc every success because I believe it could make many new friends for Bax and this symphony in particular.   I can't think of a more underrated masterpiece in British music.

The companion work on this disc is November Woods.  The standard recording by which all new versions of this work are judged is Sir Adrian Boult's definitive account on Lyrita with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.   Both Neville Marriner and Bryden Thomson give similarly conceived performances which ultimately  fail to impress as much as the Boult.  Lloyd-Jones, perhaps wisely, approaches this work differently.  His is the more literal interpretation of a violent autumn storm with the more introspective elements of this tone poem being underplayed.  This is a brilliant, on the edge-of-your-seat performance which I suspect will be controversial but which also goes to show that great music can be played in more than one way.   The playing by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is both works is sensitive and virtuosic.  I now look forward to Lloyd-Jones' recording of the beautiful Third Symphony which is scheduled for release later this year.

Naxos 8.554093

In Memoriam, Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra
The Bard of the Dimbovitza, Jean Rigby (soprano); Margaret Fingerhut (piano);
BBC Philharmonic conducted by Vernon Handley
Chandos CHAN 9715 [76:40]

by Ian Lace

These are all premiere recordings and most welcome additions to the Bax discography. How splendid the orchestral version of In Memoriam sounds; Vernon Handley and the BBC Philharmonic give a really spine-tingling performance. Dating from 1916, In Memoriam commemorates Pádraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Dublin uprising, executed soon after the rebellion was quashed. Bax was clearly greatly moved when writing this music for it conveys all the anguish he felt at learning about all the suffering in his beloved Ireland and of the veneration he felt for Pearse. Readers of Bax's Farewell, My Youth may recall how Bax remembered meeting the martyred hero: "Scarcely had Pearse shaken hands shyly than he sat down by the fire and stared into the blaze as though absorbed in a private dream but his eyes were lit with the unwavering flame of the fanatic.  Somebody said, 'Pearse wants to die for Ireland you know.' Indeed he did not have much longer to wait before his desire was granted.  As he was leaving he said to his host, 'I think your friend Arnold Bax may be one of us.  I should like to see more of him.'...I could not forget the impression that strange death-aspiring dreamer [ Pearse] made upon me when on Easter Tuesday 1916 I read, by Windermere's shore, of that wild, scatter-brained but burningly idealist adventure in Dublin the day before. I murmured to myself, 'I know that Pearse is in this'..."

Bax had fallen deeply in love with all things Irish and the English censor later declared his verses, written under his pseudonym, Dermot O'Byrne, to be subversive. In Memoriam includes the theme that Bax later used for Mr Brownlow in his score for the film Oliver Twist but here it is treated with that extra passion and deeper conviction appropriate to Pearse. In Memoriam is part-elegy, part-funeral march, and partly a furious remonstration against a cruelly suppressed bid for Irish independence. (Perhaps Bax, in more reflective and prudent mood, put it aside for it was never heard and indeed, until recently it was thought that Bax had never orchestrated it).  Marching rhythms with insistent side drum and bugle calls contrast with music that suggests Irish Elysian Fields fit for heroes. A wonderful musical experience.

The Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra was written at Storrington in 1948 for Harriet Cohen who had injured her right hand. Lewis Foreman, writing in his book, Bax, A Composer and his Times regarded this work as "watery" and "...[it] is not a successful work, and unfortunately for Bax's reputation had the misfortune of being widely played for several years. The critical sneers it received, were by implication, extended to the rest of his music... Nevertheless, Left Hand Concertante, patently Bax's worst extended work was widely heard. The first movement is laboured although there are some attractive ideas. The slow movement is probably the best; beautiful if limited...But the theme of the finale, a rondo, is tawdry. His heart was not in the work. He wrote to the Dutch cellist-composer Henri van Marken during its composition: 'I find it terribly difficult to think of anything effective for the one hand...' Except in the finale, Bax seldom brings the soloist away from the lower half of the keyboard, and so the left-hand limitation is thus rather more pronounced than it might have been. Ravel in his left-hand concerto, which Harriet never played, allowed his soloist a much wider compass..."  In an interview with Colin Anderson reproduced in this CD's booklet, Vernon Handley comments: "Margaret [Fingerhut] showed immediately that it's not directionless - It's very clean and clear. I admire in Bax that he doesn't mind writing something simple. By terming it 'Concertante' he's saying that the orchestral role is as important as the soloist's...He's written - better than Britten (Diversions) and as well as Ravel - something that uses the left-hand colour and register extremely well. The Concertante occupies a lighter emotional world but he touches moments of depth as he does in every work...."

So, the individual listener must decide.  For myself, I found the slow movement to be the most appealing and in the sensitive hands of Fingerhut and Handley, often beautiful. The opening movement has many Baxian characteristics, including northern-mythological-type figures but at some points I felt these were caricatured and I could not dismiss from my mind's eye a picture of North American Indians that the music seemed to create - maybe it was "oddities" like these that attracted such derision? The rhythmically exhilarating final Rondo is an odd mix of the sturdy and heroic with some grotesque and quirky figures plus some intriguing Brahmsian influences. Clearly Fingerhut and Handley have brought out the very best in this oddity amongst Bax's major works.

The Bard of the Dimbovitza was composed in 1914 and it clearly shows the influence of the Russian composers, that so impressed Bax in his earlier years, as well as the French impressionists.  The Bard of the Dimbovitza comprises Romanian Folk Verses collected from the peasants by Héléne Vacaresco and translated by Carmen Sylva (the nom de plume of Queen Elizabeth of Romania who was probably was more involved in their composition than she admitted) and Alma Strettel. Published in London in 1892, they became as popular as Omar Khayyam although they bore as much direct relevance to Romanian folk-poetry as Fitzgerald's verse had to Persian verse.  Bax eschews any local Romanian colour.  Most of the poems in The Bard of the Dimbovitza are designated as 'Luteplayer songs' or 'Spinning songs'. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Sheherazade is immediately apparent in the beginning of the opening "Gypsy Song"; and there are echoes of Tchaikovsky later ('There where on Sundays...'). It is dreamy, sultry and sensual with Bax richly evoking lines like: 'The brook ripples by so clearly there...'  The second song, the ghostly and mysterious "The Well of Tears" again is sumptuous but chilling too as the singer sees spectres at the bottom of a well full of tears. "Misconception" appears to be about lovers' embarrassed  silences whereas simple confessions of love would have eased everything and saved the sadness that
Bax later implies. This is a more fragile creation and nearer to the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy.  In the more light-hearted "My Girdle I Hung on a Tree-top Tall", with Bax's cheeky cuckoo figures, the singer, a clearly head-strong and independent young woman scorns the attentions of a young man. Here Rigby has to sing a dialogue between swain and maid. The latter's arrogant scorn is well represented but the former's masculine ardour could have been more strongly communicated.  The final song, "The daughter" (clearly from Bax's treatment, a spinning song) is, again, another dialogue piece, this time between a young girl, poetic, naive and eager for love and her mother disillusioned and laconic. Rigby, in the main, sings sensitively and expressively with warmth and a fine sense of the lines of the songs and Handley provides rich, evocative support.    This album is a must for all Bax enthusiasts.

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