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Sir Arnold Bax - Symphony No. 6;  Into the Twilight and Summer Music.  NAXOS 8.557144

Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones   

THE SIR ARNOLD BAX WEB SITE

Last Modified February 26, 2003 




Review by Graham Parlett

Many people regard the Sixth as Bax’s best symphony, but it received few performances even in his lifetime. When Christopher Whelen conducted it at Bournemouth in 1951, the composer, who was in the audience, told him that it was the symphony of his that he knew least well himself. There have been dissenters, of course: Norman Demuth found it the least satisfying of the symphonies and thought that Bax ‘slammed the orchestra about too much’; but on the whole even critics not usually in sympathy with the composer have considered it to be among the most striking of his works. The first performance was given by Hamilton Harty in November 1935, but despite its great success it had to wait another thirty-two years for its first recording, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Norman Del Mar on Lyrita. This is an excellent performance, and I hope that when Lyrita finally rises from the ashes this will be among the first of its re-releases on CD. Bryden Thomson’s recording for Chandos came out in 1988 (coupled with the only available version of the Festival Overture) and, like most of his Bax recordings, is good in parts, though he has a tendency to hold back instead of letting rip. Douglas Bostock’s recording for Classico, with the Munich Symphony Orchestra, which came out in 1999, also has its good points, but the sound quality is mediocre and the playing often sounds under-rehearsed. The disc does, however, contain a fine performance of Tintagel and the only available recording of the Overture to Adventure.

The new Naxos recording has all the strengths of the others in this series. Where other conductors have dawdled to admire the scenery, thus turning the music into a series of contrasting episodes, David Lloyd-Jones presses forward with urgency, and the work seems to emerge as a more organic whole. Kaikhosru Sorabji commented of the Sixth Symphony after its first performance: ‘The whole work marches irresistibly and irrevocably from point to point with the inevitability of complete mastery’, and these words sprang to mind as I listened to this recording. The sinewy first movement, which is the most concise in the whole of Bax’s symphonic cycle, packs a powerful punch. It is difficult to imagine the unison strings’ grand gesture at the Largamente on p.9 of the score being played with greater unanimity, and the main Allegro con fuoco is certainly more fiery than in most other performances that I have heard. The development section gets off to a cracking start with very crisp and precise playing from the violas, and with those swift chords for seven solo violins sounding more coherent than usual; they too often sound tentative and feeble. The trombone chords around figure 27 are also clearer than usual, and the passage a few bars later where the solo cello emerges unexpectedly from the musical texture comes across marvellously. The conductor whips the music up to an exciting frenzy before loosening the reins for the bass trombone solo (beautifully articulated here) with harp and divided strings. The coda, in which the music rushes on to its decisive ending, is superbly played.

I was initially surprised by the opening of the slow movement, where the orchestra’s harpist spreads the chords very widely indeed. As in the first movement, the conductor moves the music along, especially the theme characterized by a Scotch snap, but without making it sound rushed, and  again I feel that this is all to the good. The harsh march-like section comes across in all its brazen splendour (in some performances it sounds very tame), but the ensuing stately procession feels cold and unemotional, though I imagine this was the conductor’s deliberate intention. The very ending of the movement, with those soft chords for divided cellos and basses, is spoiled by extraneous noises right at the end, and in fact I was troubled throughout this CD by a surfeit of creaks, clicks and shuffles, though I suppose these add to the feeling of a live performance which the edge-of-the-seat playing encourages.

The Introduction to the third movement comes across well, though that hushed moment at the end of the woodwinds’ announcement of the ‘liturgical’ theme, just before the strings’ soft sigh, is spoilt by a squeak that sounds as if one of the violinists accidentally touched a string as he or she was preparing to play. The difficult poco a poco accellerando from the Introduction comes off very well indeed, and the Scherzo itself is full of vigour and vivacity. Perhaps the solo for bassoon with harp chords after figure 5 could have been a little clearer (Bryden Thomson’s recording is exemplary here). I am glad that, like Del Mar, Lloyd-Jones plays the Trio con moto, which again prevents it from becoming too cloying and self-indulgent; in Bostock’s recording this section practically grinds to a halt half way through; here it moves on but without sounding rushed. The resumption of the Scherzo and the build-up to the big climax are tremendously exciting, with conductor and orchestra on top form. The ‘liturgical’ theme is rather submerged at the molto largamente, though this may be partly Bax’s fault: the volume of sound is enormous and the top line of the theme is given only to the first oboe and first trumpet, both marked ‘solo’. A re-take of the transition to the Epilogue might not have come amiss. The difficult trumpet solo at figure 37, where the player is expected to go from the top of his range (C) almost to the bottom (F sharp) within a few bars, playing piano and legato, is slightly fluffed here; it sounds as if the player ran out of breath halfway through the second bar, and the first crotchet of the second triplet becomes a quaver. (Christopher Whelen once told me that when he conducted this work in Bournemouth the trumpeter had previously asked him not to look in his direction as he made his awkward descent because it would make him feel nervous!) The Epilogue is finely played, though once again the closing bars are spoilt by studio noises.      

This really is a splendid performance, and I think that anyone coming new to the symphony will be bowled over by it. I strongly urge anyone who owns one or other of the previous two CDs (Thomson and Bostock) to buy this new one too.

Summer Music (1921, revised 1932), a musical depiction of a summer’s day in southern England, has only ever been recorded once before, by Bryden Thomson for Chandos; not a bad performance but not nearly as fine as this new one. Again Lloyd-Jones keeps the pace going but without ever rushing the music along. The tempo changes, which in lesser hands can sound awkward, seem just right, and I especially liked the difficult transition from the Allegro (figure 10), where the music slows down and leads into the rich melody on strings.

Into the Twilight, originally intended as the prologue to an opera on the subject of Deirdre, was composed in 1908, the year before In the Faery Hills, though it sounds a much less mature work (‘a mild and rather hesitant essay in Celticism’, Bax later called it). It has been recorded once before, by Bryden Thomson on Chandos, but that performance is not quite as good as this one (and there is a wrong clarinet note near the beginning). It is possible to imagine some of the solos being played with more finesse (the solo viola at 2:50, for instance), and the second harp is barely audible at 3:35; but the opening theme on two clarinets is well played, and the climax certainly comes across more powerfully than in any previous performance that I have heard. The work emerges as an endearing early orchestral example of Bax’s enthusiasm for the Celtic world.

The sound quality throughout this CD is very good. The brass and woodwind come across especially well, and the tambourine thwacks in the finale of the symphony make their full effect; but I was disappointed by the timpani, which sound boomy and soggy: the symphony’s Scherzo really does need a much crisper timpani sound than it gets here. The harp’s presence seems to fluctuate a good deal from the startlingly clear (the end of the symphony’s slow movement) to the inaudible (the end of Into the Twilight).

The luxury of being able to indulge in nit-picking of this kind just goes to show how much the world of recorded sound has moved on in the last fifty years, and it is sobering to recall a remark that Bax made after hearing his Sixth Symphony played at a Prom in 1953, shortly before his death. Some well-meaning person suggested to him that in twenty-five years’ time the work would be in the general repertoire. ‘That’s no good’, responded Bax; ‘It’s my music and I want to hear it now’. It is very sad that the composer never lived to see the revival of interest in his music and to hear, in particular, this very fine performance of one of his greatest works.

Copyright ©  Graham Parlett


Review by Christopher Webber

With the 6th, Naxos reach what is for many the heart of Bax's symphonic cycle. Stormy, fierce and abrasive it may be, yet this masterpiece is fashioned throughout from strikingly beautiful material and its structure is crystal clear. Not that it plays itself. Although the 6th is more recorded than any of the symphonies bar the 3rd, serious reservations can be voiced about each of the three versions preceding this Naxos release.

For many, Norman Del Mar's incandescent Lyrita LP (still unavailable in official transfer) is the touchstone. Yet its spot lit recording quality and Del Mar's highly personal reading remain controversial. Not so the two available CD performances. Douglas Bostock's reading for Classico's British Music Collection is thoughtfully conceived, but he is let down by the untidy, tentative execution of his Munich Symphony Orchestra. No such qualms about Bryden Thomson's London Philharmonic on Chandos; but plenty about the swimming, bass-shy acoustic of All Saints Tooting, and the conductor's unwontedly slack hand on the tiller.

Relief is at hand. The new Naxos is in a different league from those disappointing CD rivals, and in some respects even supersedes del Mar's beloved version. To my ears most previous issues in the Lloyd-Jones/RSNO cycle have lacked heat and/or heart: both qualities are in abundant supply here, especially in the intensely driven outer movements. This is a swift but by no means balletic traversal of a great symphony, attacked from the start by Lloyd-Jones's massed forces with joyous, fierce exhilaration.

The introductory 'pagan march' is rhythmically supercharged, building impressively into the genuine allegro con fuoco which launches the movement proper. There is no slackening of tension even for the gentler, unison-flutes 'second subject'. The pace is fast and furious; the brutal assault and battery from the drums and brass (at 7:03) and the howling woodwind storm which precedes it are specially awesome. So is the lugubrious trombone solo (7:48), here given an urgent nobility firmly in keeping with the tenor of the whole. There's a sense that, maybe for the first time in their cycle, conductor and players have really kicked over the traces. The results are dangerously, thrillingly on the edge until the movement ends "like the slamming of a door", as Graham Parlett aptly puts it in his fresh and revealing program note.

Lloyd-Jones's 'slow' movement is equally linear, equally focussed, but not I think equally compelling. The comparative thinness of the Scottish strings is more of a worry here, too, than in the opening movement. Still, it's refreshing to find the conductor of a Bax middle movement pursuing the argument straight from where the first left off, rather than letting it drift into a ruminative intermezzo. Lloyd-Jones resists any temptation to linger, even over such magical strokes as the celesta and harp 'garlanding' of the main theme at 2:05. This moment is compromised, incidentally, by the inaudibility of the celesta - a rare flaw in an otherwise marvellously full and detailed recording, higher cut than previous issues in the series. Though Bax's poetry is kept on a tight rein, it would be false to say that the music feels rushed. The 'scotch snap' trumpet tune, for example, is perfectly phrased - much more bracing than Thomson's LPO (not enough snap and too much scotch?) But surely Lloyd-Jones pushes on dangerously fast towards the climax of the movement. Bax's culminatory statement, yearning strings over the measured tread of woodwind and brass - a stroke of genius - is robbed of at least some of its healing warmth.

The "Introduction - Scherzo and Trio - Epilogue" scheme for the Finale may look ramshackle on paper; but Bax's music, alternating slow and fast sections, is anything but. As Parlett reminds us, this is the only Bax Finale to start quietly, with a solo clarinet presenting the darkly intense, aspirational theme from which the whole movement grows (solo playing, here and throughout the work, is personal yet finely integrated into the broader flow). Bax's development of his material is masterly: when, after a beautifully controlled accelerando, the Scherzo springs at us, we are ambushed by that self-same theme transformed into mischievous, puckish energy. Though the succeeding Trio stiffens where the composer seems to invite momentary repose - an impression heightened by patches of wayward ensemble - once the Scherzo returns, so does the energy. The Tapiola episode is thrilling, a hell-for-leather hunt over demon country, and the climax hits like a furnace blast of devastating heat. After this the glowing coal of the Epilogue, more content, less bleakly resigned than usual, provides a wonderfully satisfying quietus.

The two tone poems, welcome though they be, are anti-climactic. Into the Twilight is spiked by scrappy string tone and a noisy peroration, emphasising the shortcomings of this early piece. It sounds much better under Thomson on Chandos. In the pleasant idyll Summer Music honours are even, Lloyd-Jones's capricious and varied textures complemented by Thomson's more mellow-sensual Ulster account on his very first Bax disc. On balance the extra dynamic range and some pretty woodwind work swing the vote in Naxos's favour.

Back to the main meat. For visceral impact alone this would be the pick of the Lloyd-Jones series, but there's much more to his reading of the 6th Symphony than that. More danger, more detail and (interpretative quibbles apart) more authority. No question, the Naxos is now clear first choice for this magnificent symphony - at any price. 

Copyright ©  Christopher Webber


Review by Rob Barnett

This recording of Bax's finest symphony goes straight to top recommendation. For anyone wanting to hear the work to best effect this is the disc to have. It stands well above the ClassicO version (Munich SO/Bostock), which was rather shrill - a pity for a work so dependent on barbaric Bakstian colour. The Bryden Thomson version is amongst the best sounding of the Chandos cycle from the ’eighties and ’nineties, however Lloyd-Jones’s conducting is much more urgent and his performance overall is characterized by a much more forward moving pulse that is essential to making Bax symphonies work. The only other commercial recording is from the mid-1960s and it still languishes amid the vinyl in collections, lofts and outhouses across the world. This Lyrita was the second Bax symphony ever recorded onto LP (the first was the Revolution/Concert Artist version in which the thin-reedy Guildford PO were conducted by Vernon Handley in the Fourth Symphony).

The drive, repose, fantasy and even, to some extent, the microphone placement during the Glasgow sessions for this disc seem to have been designed to produce an effect close to the Del Mar/New Philharmonia Orchestra recording. Whether this is by coincidence or by design hardly matters at all because, rather like the Solti Elgar 2 (where the conductor was rumoured to have spent time studying the composer's own recordings), the effect is stupendous. (By the way, the Del Mar Lyrita sessions must have been amongst the earliest after the orchestra was compelled to change its name by adding the 'New' for legal reasons.) The grip of that Lyrita recording made many Bax converts (it won me over instantly) and would do so again if ever reissued. Of course it had its glorious and inglorious weaknesses. Inglorious is the irksome requirement to change side. Glorious was the indulgent microphone placement that spot-lit instruments - perhaps an early example of Phase 4 techniques? The Lloyd-Jones version seems to use the Del Mar Lyrita as a pilgrim's compass. The reading is spot-on. It does not drift and dream although it does have its designed passages of eloquent introspection and quiet threat. There are wars inherent in this music as well as the cradling of the subtle and the ever-young - try 6.53 onwards in the second movement.

Listening to this symphony in such a splendidly direct reading one can see the reason why Bax's first instinct to dedicate the work to Karol Szymanowski (recently dead at the date of the premiere) was so apposite. In fact Bax changed the dedicatee so that Adrian Boult's name appears in the printed score.

This work is a most beautiful work slashed and ravaged into an emotionally cogent and superbly gripping piece of music-making. Has British music ever produced a moment more shockingly visceral than the elemental heaven-clawing triumph instantly fallen to supernal dust in the finale (09.17 track 3)? 

Crisp playing from the RSNO extends from the ruthless attack of the double basses to the edgy immediacy and rugged growl of the trombones to the upward shuddering rushes of the strings (11.40 and 11.47) to the tricky mithril trumpets that sing out their delicate hearts at 12.20 in the finale.

Of the fillers, Into the Twilight is an early Irish work with a rapturous melody of Celtic curve - its horizon stated with dripping romance on the strings at 4.17. Summer Music is a warm delight dedicated to Delius whose music it resembles; someone's Walk to the Paradise Garden surely echoes through at 7.10 onwards. Bax had written like this before in Spring Fire, Happy Forest and the Third Symphony.

The Bax picture will be completed by Naxos in the Autumn with the release of the Lloyd-Jones' Seventh Symphony and Tintagel. The new Chandos cycle, which it is rumoured will couple some of the symphonies two to a disc, should start to emerge before summer 2003. Chandos will also fill the catalogue lacunae among the choral/orchestral works with pieces such as St Patrick's Breastplate and the yet more impressive To the Name Above Every Name. The Royal Academy of Music will be having a Bax week in October. Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall will hear the enchanting Chantal Juillet giving two performances of the Violin Concerto on 8 and 10 May 2003.

And if you are not sure about getting this disc ... ? Well, if you already appreciate Vaughan Williams' Sixth, Szymanowski's Third, Sibelius's Fifth, Martinu's Fourth or Fifth, Nielsen's Fifth or Bax's November Woods or Fifth Symphony then go ahead and buy with confidence. Make no mistake this is an outstanding Bax recording containing some of the best-judged, violent and sensuous of interpretations.

Copyright ©  Rob Barnett