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Bax: Symphony No.5; The Tale The Pine-Trees Knew 

Royal Scottish National Orchestra  

David Lloyd-Jones        


Last Modified September 1, 2000

Naxos 8.554509 [57.51]


Review by Ian Lace

This latest release in David Lloyd-Jones's impressive Bax Symphonies cycle for Naxos is an intelligent coupling of the 5th Symphony and The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew, for both were composed almost concurrently during 1931 and both were influenced by Sibelius.

In the 5th Symphony completed at Morar in March 1932, there are strong references to Sibelius in the outer movements. The work opens with a slow introduction on clarinets that is closely reminiscent of the slow movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. Although Bax attempts a genuine Sibelian growth in this movement, the Finnish composer's influence is limited, the typical Bax fingerprints are never significantly blurred. In fact Burnett James in a letter to Lewis Foreman suggested that "...much though Bax admired Sibelius, it is a red herring.  I am convinced the line runs far more accurately from Mahler through Bax to Shostakovich...Bax, with his confessed Russian affiliations, looks forward to Shostakovich not back to Sibelius."

Whatever, the opening of the symphony is imaginative and very atmospheric. I was always impressed with Bryden Thomson's treatment on his rival version (Chandos CHAN 8669) with the clarinets arching over a ghostly drum beat that is slightly more forward than Lloyd-Jones allows, followed by a magically atmospheric string passage.  Thomson also wins in the slower, quieter middle stretches of this movement. Here he creates a magical world that is tender, wistful and poignant yet sensual too.  There is little difference between both conductors' timings of the Poco lento-Allegro con fuoco first movement: Lloyd-Jones comes in at 17:13 while Thomson delivers in 17:32.  Lloyd-Jones reading is crisper and more strongly accented; and, again, as in his other Bax symphonies readings in this Naxos series, he drives the music firmly forward, he is more concerned with the form of the work.  His view is
harder-edged, more ferocious.  Although Bax mentions no programme one can imagine the more terrible images associated with the northern myths and legends. Ernest Newman after the first performance of this symphony commented - " contains...harshness - even ugliness...We all thought that Bax had exorcised his spectres in the No. 4 would seem...he has gone back to the trouble world of Nos. 1-3..." In fact David Lloyd-Jones, in the wilder reaches of this movement, seems to be once again uncaging the beast he released in his readings of the first two Symphonies. This is apposite for more than one observer has noted the epic span, the continuing saga of Bax's
Symphonies with the conflict stated in the First Symphony only being resolvedin the apocalyptic Sixth.

The slow movement is another magical pictorial evocation.  As Lewis Foreman relates in Bax: A Composer and His Times, "Bax referred to the sensation of suddenly seeing the sea at the summit of Slieve League, a favourite place of natural grandeur in the West of Ireland. To 'anyone going up from the South the sea is hidden by the landward bulk of the mountain itself, so that when it bursts into view at a height of almost 2,000 ft, the sudden sight of the
Atlantic horizon tilted half-way up the sky is completely overwhelming.' It is some such experience that was being remembered in the opening to this passionate but autumnal movement."  The music begins on high tremolandi
strings with running harp coloration and fanfaring trumpets. Again it is Thomson who scores here. His textures are that more translucent the more audible harp decorations adding that much more colour and atmosphere.  But
overall Lloyd-Jones impresses most.  His reading is more cogent and cohesive. In places there is a nice sense of wild elemental forces being held in check. Lloyd-Jones beautifully shapes the quieter more reflective golden autumnal passages with the central theme that speaks eloquently of nostalgia and gentle regret as it passes from woodwinds, to brass, to strings before being worked up into an impassioned climax.

The Finale is the weakest of the movements contrasting a liturgical theme with wilder material before the hymn-like theme blazes forth in glory in the epilogue.  Here Thomson's slow tempi (he rambles for nearly 14 minutes while Lloyd-Jones comes in at just over 12½), do the music no real service. Granted the earlier wilder sections the are exciting enough but the liturgical theme is ponderous and the epilogue threatens to collapse under its own weight.  Lloyd-Jones is much crisper, much more in control. His liturgical theme is more convincing and affecting for being that much brisker and his handling of the final reaches of the epilogue intrigues. Yes there is triumph but there is also a feeling of uncertainty too that Bax's demons are still around and that the conflict is still unresolved and waiting for the cataclysmic storms and resolution of the Sixth Symphony, that came in the following year, 1934 (although the Sixth was not premiered until 1935).

This new recording of Bax's Fifth Symphony supersedes the Chandos recording but there are great moments in Thomson's reading that I will always treasure.

The Tale The Pine-Trees Knew

Harriet Cohen remembered Bax being moved to tears at the first British performance of Sibelius's Tapiola and that 'he and Cecil Gray had decided that if Sibelius had written nothing else, this would place him among the
immortals for all time.' Lewis Foreman in his book  suggests that Bax's Pine-Trees 'score might well be prefaced by the oft-quoted  quatrain which Sibelius himself supplied when asked by his publisher to explain the title of

Widespread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest's might god
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

Bax actually wrote a programme note for the Pine-Trees in which he admitted 'that in planning the composition I was thinking of two landscapes dominated by the pine trees - Norway and the West of Scotland - thinking too of the Norse sagas and of the wild traditional legends of the Highland Celt...But this work is concerned solely with the abstract mood of these places, and the pine-trees' tale must be taken purely as a generic one.  Certainly I had no
specific coniferous story to relate...'

Lewis suggests that the work's opening music '...perhaps suggests...the wind sighing in the trees. Indeed, at about this time Bax wrote to Mary (Gleaves) from Scotland: "the pine trees in Rothemurchüs sighed and sighed and I longed for you to be with me."'

At this point I think it is worth quoting from my interview with David Lloyd-Jones about this Naxos Bax series (first published in my article on the Bax Symphonies published in British Music Society News, Fanfare and on
Richard Adams' web site devoted to the music of the composer). 'I have done a lot of research in preparation for these recordings and have uncovered some interesting material. You will notice this particularly when you hear the
later tone-poem  The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew...When I was recording this fine austere work...I was using a set of parts dating from the time when Barbirolli was chief conductor of the Royal National Scottish Orchestra in the
mid-1930s. This tone poem was dedicated to Barbirolli and the front desk parts still have his distinctive blue pencil bowings. The end of Pine-Trees is a bit abrupt, and in this set of parts there is an instruction to repeat
the first four bars of fig 57 which I have followed. I am convinced that this is authentic. I have not been successful in locating Barbirolli's own full score, but as he was so closely associated with this work, I feel sure that
he discussed the ending with Bax. Bax had, by then, heard the work in performance, probably more than once, and doubtless decided the ending could be improved by repeating these four bars.

'But more importantly, there is a passage in the recapitulation of Pine-Trees marked at fig 46 meno mosso that presents a real problem.  Some people have conducted this passage in four which makes the main theme sound unbelievably slow and unnatural. I have always felt instinctively that this is wrong so I
went along to the British Library to look at the manuscript. At first I was disappointed that it did not confirm my belief for it was exactly the same as the published score; but then I found the manuscript of Bax's original piano
sketch for the work and sure enough he has clearly marked the passage ala breve; therefore, I feel justified in playing it in this faster way. It really brings the music to life and does not pre-empt the Maestoso that follows twelve bars later.  So I suppose I have made a small contribution to Bax studies!"

So to the new recording.  Certainly Lloyd-Jones seems to get under the skin of this work and realises its potential more fully than most have done.  As usual he keeps a tight grip on the music and propels it forward strongly yet keeps it pliant.  He vividly conjures all the imagery mentioned above, cruel elemental forces at work in lonely northern wildernesses with subtle hints of fairies and trolls.  But, again I find it is Thomson on Chandos (with three other Bax tone poems on CHAN 8307) that weaves a more colourful pattern in the more tranquil section with magical horn passages.

Summarising this is another splendid addition to Naxos's evolving Bax Symphonies cycle.  Strongly recommended

© Ian Lace  2000

Review by Graham Parlett

After issuing Bax’s first three symphonies in chronological order, Naxos have now skipped one and jumped to the Fifth (1932), which, like Vaughan Williams’s Fifth, is dedicated to Sibelius. This is its third commercial recording, the others being by the LPO conducted by Raymond Leppard on Lyrita (no longer available) and by the same orchestra under Bryden Thomson on Chandos  (coupled with the Russian Suite or in a boxed set of all the symphonies). Leppard’s pioneering version was generally leaner and more incisive than Thomson’s weightier reading, though the orchestral materials that the former used contained several misprints, while the latter had the advantage of a corrected score and parts. However, in the outer movements, at least, both of them must now yield to David Lloyd-Jones’s new version.

The introduction to the first movement is carefully paced—in fact the pacing throughout is exemplary—and rises to an exciting climax (superb horns), with the orchestra playing the ensuing Allegro, as Bax himself directed, ‘with confident ferocity’. The fast music has tremendous panache throughout, and the conductor never falls into the trap of stopping and starting at Bax’s frequent changes of tempo, a skill already demonstrated in his excellent recording of the Third Symphony. The Dolce  meno mosso strikes me as being just the right tempo, and the development seems to flow more inevitably than in most other performances that I have heard. After the tremendous climax, with the Allegro’s cakewalk rhythm triumphant, the music gradually recedes to a desolate conclusion, though it is a pity that another take was not used here: some chair creaks spoil the effect.

 The slow movement, after its striking opening with string tremolos, harp arpeggios and brass triads, is a sombre affair for much of the time with plainsong-like writing and atmospheric half-lights, but interleaved with moments of great romantic passion. Leppard was at his best here, I think, bringing out the music’s warmth and relishing the heart-on-sleeve moments. This new version is certainly at a less overtly emotional level than the other two recordings, bleaker and darker, but revealing the sense of disquiet that underlies its pages; and that eerie muted tuba solo on pp. 87-8 comes over much more clearly than in the Chandos version. (Bax is said to have written it especially for a mildly frustrated tuba-player of his acquaintance who was bored with playing nothing but bass parts.)

 The finale, after the grinding organum-like opening, goes at a cracking pace, with the orchestra clearly relishing Bax’s highly rhythmical ideas. The slower middle section, which contains the passage that Harriet Cohen likened to polar bears sleepily turning over in the arctic wastes, provides suitable contrast before the return of the Allegro, which rises to a ferocious climax. Lloyd-Jones manages the awkward transition from the mellifluous opening of the Epilogue to the triumphal ending better than most conductors. (Incidentally, I am convinced that Bax had the ending of Elgar’s First Symphony in mind when scoring these pages. Those downward violin arpeggios on pp.152-4 must have been borrowed from the Elgar (pp.162-4 in the Novello study score), and they occur in the Sinfonietta too, which also dates from 1932.) The closing pages are magnificent.

The quality of the recording is similar to that of the previous issues in this series: clearer than the reverberant Chandos sound but not lacking in richness. A pity the harp is sometimes inaudible: I miss, for example, that delicious downward glissando on p. 77 of the slow movement.

As with the symphony, this is the third commercial recording of its near contemporary, the tone-poem The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew (1931), another of Bax’s ‘Northern Ballads’ in all but name. I preferred Vernon Handley’s pioneering LP version with the Guildford Philharmonic to Bryden Thomson’s Ulster CD, though I see that the reviewer in Gramophone has a very high opinion of the latter. I confess that the first time I listened to the new Naxos version, I was disconcerted. I found the opening slower than I expected and the slow middle section faster than usual. Repeated hearings, however, have revealed its secrets, and now that I am used to the tempi I am finding more and more in the performance. David Lloyd-Jones has thought hard about the various tempo changes in the climactic part of the third section. He plays them more briskly than in the previous recordings, and they now make more sense than with Handley or Thomson, where one climax seemed to lead to another for no apparent reason; here there is a stronger sense of inevitability.

One novel feature is the repeat of four bars just before the end. The conductor found them marked in the set of parts the orchestra was using, which had previously been used by Barbirolli, and inferred that the repeat may have been sanctioned by Bax himself. Unfortunately no mention is made of this in the CD notes, and anyone familiar with the music or following the score might imagine that there has been an editing blunder. Whether or not it had Bax’s approval, it certainly works very well. And if you want to know how the pine-trees’ tale ends, in other words whether Lloyd-Jones uses the loud final chord printed in the score and followed by Handley or the soft one substituted by Bax and used by Thomson, you’ll just have to buy the CD. Another superb bargain from Naxos.

© Graham Parlett  2000

Review by Christopher Webber

If Bax's 5th Symphony has been one of his least appreciated, the reason is not far to seek. Although it has received a good press for formal lucidity, its thematic integration leaves little room for the kind of big tunes and sweeping gestures that make the 3rd and 4th, for example, so immediately winning. Some - misguided - attempts to compare form and content with the later symphonies of its dedicatee, Sibelius, have not worked in its favour (Wagner's Preludes are a more significant formal influence). The feeling persists that there is too much head and not enough heart in the 5th - some would even argue that the 'chorale' theme of the epilogue is unconvincing, its major-key 'triumph' unearned.

It says much for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's performance under David Lloyd-Jones that no such doubts surface. Earlier issues in the Naxos cycle have seemed, in racing parlance, "short of a gallop", but this confident reading is a winner from start to finish. Lloyd-Jones's strength has always been his refusal to sacrifice the symphonic wood for Bax's seductive trees, and the impressively integrated 5th plays into his hands. Not that the piece comes across as remotely dry. At the very start a relentless, funereal tread announces that this is no abstract nature symphony, but a human drama of strange ritual and spiritual striving. This is the swiftest performance yet recorded, which may help account for its cogency. Phrasing in the fiercely argued 1st movement is not so opulently moulded as in the famous Lyrita recording with the LPO under Raymond Leppard, the drama less vividly depicted, but the whole adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. Nicely muted contributions from woodwind and strings - the tactfully integrated cello line at 6:10, the reflective clarinet solo in the Delian reverie at 9:05 - never draw attention away from the subtle logic of Bax's thematic transformation. The Indian War Dance at
11:42 emerges with fine swagger, impressively caught in Tim Handley's clean and muscular recording; and the climax, when it comes, is breathtaking.

The second movement begins with a memorable sonic snapshot, bright trumpets over shimmering strings, which brings the sea to mind for many listeners. Lloyd Jones takes a more sombre view of these fanfares than the splendid Leppard, but his approach has the benefit of ensuring that the autumnal body of the movement is not upstaged. Again, his restraint signals a reading where man rather than landscape is at the centre of Bax's drama.

There is a pensive, liturgical quality to Lloyd-Jones's slow movement which links it unmistakably to the baleful 'chorale' theme at the start of the last. The fast music that follows could have crisper rhythms, but the bizarre witch's cauldron for low strings and woodwind at 4:08 is chillingly brewed, and the climaxes are achieved without strain. The return of the ritual 'chorale' for the epilogue seems exactly right, a musical solution far remote from any cheap triumphalism. Under Lloyd Jones the feeling is much more subtle than that, a touching expression of a humility and communion with others which can make life perhaps more bearable, less tragic. Bryden Thomson has plenty to offer on Chandos, and the Leppard has a special fire - but even if that Lyrita performance was available on commercial CD, which it isn't, the new Naxos would be the more centrally satisfying recommendation.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the coupling. The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew may not be quite top-drawer Bax, but where tempi and colour are as unvaried as here, it seems wooden in the wrong sense. The shadow of Sibelius's Tapiola looms large, though Vernon Handley managed to make us forget it - just - on an old LP with the Guildford Symphony Orchestra, long since deleted. Pine-Trees is surely best approached as a lightweight scherzo-pendant to November Woods, and Handley conjured true "miching mallecho", a sly humour and woodland fantasy, where Naxos offer mere lumber. The titanic clashes at 11:50 go for nothing, and Lloyd-Jones opts for Bax's delicate revised ending rather than the malicious thump found in the printed score and Handley's version. That's the way to do it. But buy this Naxos CD for the 5th Symphony, the best in Lloyd-Jones's cycle so far.

© Christopher Webber 2000

Review by Rob Barnett

This now makes the fourth disc in the Naxos Bax Symphony cycle. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 have been issued over the last three years. With this event the company has passed the midway point with only numbers 4, 6 and 7 to come. Of these the most eagerly awaited is No. 6 which with November Woods, Winter Legends and the Piano Quintet are his chef d'oeuvres. Naxos have now exhausted their stock of Bax on tape and will need to return to Glasgow to complete the cycle. I do hope that the sessions have been programmed.

The Naxos cycle is significant because, when complete, it will be the first ever (commercial or otherwise) consummated by a single orchestra, single conductor and single record company. It is typical of Naxos's enterprise that they should be at the helm and remarkably welcome that the cycle is on a budget label.

Number 5 with its wintry fantasy, snowy beauty and gaudy tragic-heroics first won me over to the Bax camp. It remains a personal favourite. I first heard it in 1972 when the Leppard/LPO Lyrita LP was issued and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Lloyd-Jones, who first swam into my field of vision with the Philips Universo LP of rare Russian music (Original version of Night on the Bare Mountain and the irresistible Glazunov completion of Borodin Symphony No. 3), has already shown himself a perceptive Bax interpreter. So he proves in the Symphony - certainly this is so in the outer movements where he is less prone to slowing the pace to swelter in the heat of Bax's lyrico-harmonic tapestry. In the central movement I found him spiritual (which is what is required) but also too ready to surrender to reflective lassitude. When Bax is made to lumber the music loses the place. I really liked the Naxos way with the last movement. It has dynamism, a sense of the wild dance, and the bell-tones are made to glint with proper splendour. Among the symphonies this was the last one to rejoice in a typical 'bring the house down' finale. DL-J makes hay with this. It is only after listening to radio tapes of the symphony conducted by Harry Newstone and Stanford Robinson that you realise that still more impact can be extracted from the belligerently beautiful pages of this 1930s symphony.

The Tale the Pine Trees Knew is of the same era and atmosphere. Many sections of the Tale could be slotted in to the Symphony and vice versa. The Tale is however touched with much more of the lighter or pictorial Bax (Symphony No. 4); so much so that it is not a complete read-across from the symphony. Chronologically the work falls between the two symphonies (4 and 5) so it is no surprise to find it touched with the atmosphere of both. It is mysterious, grimly celebratory and harsh in the manner of Northern Ballads 1 and 2.

The sleeve notes (by Nina Large - a new name in Bax scholarship) are good but disfigured by two references to Mary Greaves as Bax's friend and lover. Her name was Mary Gleaves.

The recording is honest and clear-eyed. While Raymond Leppard still has the edge in terms of consistently successful judgement on pacing this Naxos disc is very fine indeed and enjoyably continues a great series presenting the seriously symphonic work of a composer whose combustible imagination remains a national treasure.

© Rob Barnett 2000