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Bax: Symphony No.3. The Happy Forest 

Royal Scottish National Orchestra

David Lloyd-Jones   


Last Modified June 2, 2000

Naxos 8.553608

Review by Rob Barnett

This is simply the best recording ever issued of Bax's most famous symphony.

The pacing (always problematic with Bax) is brilliantly judged. This has not always been the case. I have heard more than a fair share of somnolent interpretations. The RCA recording (LSO/Edward Downes, 1969) was my introduction to the work. That version seemed slack. It slept and meandered its way through the luxuriant thickets. Bryden Thomson on an over-warm Chandos was little better. As for Barbirolli -- the antiquated sound does little for the work. On radio tapes I have heard Norman del Mar who shared Lloyd-Jones' fantasy vision. Myer Fredman was excellent on a rare ABC LP.

Now Naxos sweep all contenders aside in the most affirmative fashion. Listen to the bow wave of the horn section at 15.38 in the first movement and the Skald's intoning trumpet of the second movement (3.02). The strings have that fragile loveliness (tending to Delian absorption) so integral to Bax's world. There is a liberating joy in the first few minutes of the finale which carries over into the fourth symphony.  After a reminiscence of Rimsky's Russian Easter Festival (2.47) and Janacek's Sinfonietta (3.53 - a foretaste) and Firebird (4.16) the mood becomes more subtle and ambiguous before a determined rhythmic pattern resumes. This too falls away into the long quiet trudge into the dewy ecstatic oblivion of Bax's first great symphonic epilogue.

Oddly enough the Naxos disc shares the same coupling as the 1969 RCA LP (reissued in 1977 on RCA Gold Seal). The Happy Forest shares woodland magic with Spring Fire, Nympholept, and Dance In The Sunlight. The lovely tranced middle section is not as well done as the Downes with the Naxos tending to rush the moment.

A completely recommendable disc.

Rob Barnett

Review by Graham Parlett

Of the four previous commercial recordings of this work I suspect that most people would vote the Barbirolli performance the best. Recorded in the composer's presence, it has a unique atmosphere, and it is good to hear that Dutton will soon be reissuing it again on CD. Edward Downes's RCA performance (on LP only) has some splendid moments, but listening to it again recently I was struck by how dull some of it is. Myer Fredman's ABC recording again contains some marvellous playing but suffers from cautious tempi, and many people outside Australia will never have heard it since it was not easily obtainable elsewhere. Bryden Thomson's Chandos recording was certainly the best in terms of sound quality, but like many of his performances it suffers from lethargic tempi, awkward gear-changes and, in the slow movement, a couple of wrong notes.

Having been deeply impressed by David Lloyd-Jones's two previous Bax recordings, I was eagerly awaiting this symphony and am delighted to find that it fulfils my expectations. From the very opening bassoon solo, most expressively played, it is clear that the conductor has thought very carefully about the work. He has realised that in order to make it succeed it is necessary to describe a clear line from start to finish. There are two features in this new performance that I especially admire: firstly, the way in which the conductor keeps the music moving forward urgently but without rushing, and, secondly,  the way in which he negotiates the frequent changes
of gear so that they sound perfectly natural. Many conductors tend to stop and start when faced with Bax's frequent changes of mood and tempo, but not here. For example, I have never heard the transition from the slow introduction into the Allegro moderato sound more natural. The RSNO plays the first movement's Allegro feroce superbly, and I noticed details that had escaped me before, such as the cello line around fig.16. After the long middle section, the slow transition starting on violas again has that forward-moving quality that has eluded previous interpreters. The anvil at the climax, as in all the recordings, is a little disappointing-perhaps Bax should have stuck to his original idea of having a cymbal clash here-but the torrent of ferocity it unleashes is wonderfully realised, with exultant horns and snarling muted brass. The fast coda is a real unfettered Allegro and brings the movement to a shattering conclusion, the trumpet trills on the third page from the end coming across with unusual clarity.

Competition in the slow movement is keener and David Lloyd-Jones's rivals are all at their best here. The magical episode at fig.6 with solo horn, harp, celesta and divided strings sounds a little underplayed (in fact the harp throughout the score is not very flatteringly recorded), but the pages leading up to the movement's climax are splendidly realised. The finale, as far as the Epilogue, is again played with tremendous panache, the conductor managing, as in the first movement, to make the transitions between episodes sound totally natural, unlike Thomson on Chandos, who pulls the music about mercilessly. That Poco tenuto deciso at fig.5a is just right, and likewise the Piu lento around figs.14-15, which Lloyd-Jones treats as a brief respite without making a meal of it (and unlike most conductors he meticulously observes the Tempo Primo indications). It must be conceded that when it comes to the Epilogue nobody quite matches the Barbirolli recording, and in comparison this new performance inevitably sounds a little prosaic. The woodwind line at fig.24 is far too loud, and others make more of the dynamic contrasts between the isolated low pizzicati at fig.27. But the rest of this movement has an irresistible energy to it and it would certainly now be my first choice. Barbirolli's recording will always hold a special place, of course, but for sheer virtuosity combined with good modern sound, Lloyd-Jones will be hard to beat.

It is possible, inevitably, to quibble about minor details: the harpist's general reluctance to spread chords sounds more suited to Stravinsky than to Bax (a similar fault occurs in the Naxos recording of In the Faery Hills); the muted brass are sometimes nearly inaudible when they play pianissimo; the bass drummer comes in a beat too early at the triumphal climax of the third movement; and the cymbal clashes at the same place fail to register. But these are minor faults that do not detract from a magnificent performance that in most respects is superior to any that I have heard, and I am taking into consideration performances by conductors as varied as Del Mar, Handford, Handley, Sargent and Schwartz. Turning briefly to the coupling, I can certainly confirm that this is The Happiest Forest on record, the brass in particular having a field-day, and it is clear that David Lloyd-Jones excels in this kind of vivacious music (witness his Bliss and Lambert recordings).

The sound quality is similar to the previous issues in the series, lacking the richness (or over-reverberation, depending on your point of view) of Chandos, but thereby allowing more detail to come across, such as the rasping quality of the low woodwind and the rich tone of the horns; indeed the brass as a whole have tremendous bite. I found the recording a little unyielding in places, especially the violins when they are playing high up, and the harp is too often inaudible; and listening on headphones I was troubled at first by the sound of traffic in the background near the beginning (though that is not nearly as irritating as the children's playground that can be distantly heard at the end of the Chandos recording!). Like the previous issues in this series, the recording level is
low, and I had to turn the volume up higher than for practically any other CD in my collection.

After so much to praise, I am sorry to end on a sour note, but there is one unfortunate blemish that really cannot be overlooked and will doubtless be spotted by anyone familiar with the symphony, and that is in bar 3 of the third movement, where somebody has spliced two separate takes together and in doing so has repeated the second note (a minim or half-note), turning the bar into one of 6/4 instead of 4/4. I trust that Naxos will re-edit this at the earliest opportunity.

Graham Parlett

Review by Christopher Webber

As a convinced and occasionally convicted Baxian, I was keen to review the latest release in the Naxos series without the customary special pleading. After all, though we can still - just - count the number of commercial recordings on the fingers of one hand, it's surely possible for a 2000 reviewer to treat the 3rd Symphony as one of the accepted masterworks of the repertoire and cut to the critical chase.

Ah, hubris! Even before that first bassoon solo had unwound its mysterious tendril, ghostly doubts had set in. Was the granite first movement really quite cogently argued? Did the glamour of the Lento really strike that deep? Were the Russian influences in the last movement really so seamlessly absorbed? Thankfully, by the end of the Epilogue's unique, enigmatic tranquillity I was firmly back in the fold. This is a great symphony, no shadow of possible or probable doubt whatever. End of special pleading.

In case this personal odyssey comes across as self-indulgence, I'll make my point - which is, that having been only
spasmodically drawn in by the Naxos performance, I found myself horribly tempted to blame the work. After all, David Lloyd-Jones's direction displays classical clarity of line; orchestral focus, dynamic nuances and tempi are generally well-judged; and though he launches into the Epilogue a mite feverishly, even this has the side benefit of pointing up its thematic and rhythmic growth from the main movement. The clean recording quality matches the approach - no previous version has registered so much of Bax's orchestral filigree, or had quite this dynamic range. Only, most of the time, the magic touch is missing.

What's lacking? Perhaps the very detail of the recording cuts against the warmly familiar fog of romance, the atmosphere you can almost reach out and touch, which makes the old Barbirolli version on EMI so haunting. Under the spotlight of modern recording, I wonder how far the Halle's frequent executive slips would have dissipated that magic? Lloyd-Jones's reading is a model of clean, no-nonsense structural intelligence, decidedly preferable to Thompson's, waterlogged in the Chandos swimming-bath. But perhaps "no-nonsense" is the problem here, at least in so far as it limits the size and scope of Bax's emotional canvas. And while precision is a plus in so many places, it can sometimes sound like playing safe. Lloyd-Jones is significantly slower, for instance, more cautious than Barbirolli in that tricky first movement allegro.

Bax also needs imaginative individual playing. As the recording highlights, much of this score has the intimacy of chamber music, and here some of the woodwind and string players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra fall marginally short. Individuality may not be deemed much of a virtue these days, but although such limpid Bax is refreshing, phrasing can be an inch too rigid (1st clarinet a glorious exception) and orchestral poetry an inch too prosaic. Nor can the RSNO muster the weight of string tone the work ideally needs at the big climaxes, where the violins tend to go missing under the headstrong exuberance of the clean-winded brass. The string section is heard to noticeably better advantage in the comparatively lightweight scoring of the The Happy Forest, a sweetly delicate envoi to the main offering.

The Bax 1st and 2nd in the Naxos series have won golden opinions, and there's very little wrong with this 3rd either. The firm structuring of the symphony, and the coupling, put me in mind of Edward Downes's under-appreciated reading on RCA with the LSO, and respect for the Naxos performance similarly grows on closer acquaintance. Affection? Ask me in about thirty years. With a running time of under 54 minutes another filler wouldn't have gone amiss, but at this price nobody's going to be miffed - even though the performance of the Symphony doesn't quite capture that elusive glint of gold.

Christopher Webber 2000