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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
The Seven Symphonies (1921-1939)

CD1 [74:03]
First Symphony (1921-22) in E flat major [31:58]
(dedicated to John Ireland)
1 I Allegro moderato e feroce - Moderato espressivo - Tempo I [12:56]
2 II Lento solenne [10:34]
3 III Allegro maestoso - Allegro vivace ma non troppo presto [8:17]
Third Symphony (1928-29) [41:51]
(dedicated to Sir Henry J. Wood)
4 I Lento moderato - Allegro moderato - [16:42]
5 II Lento [11:12]
6 III Moderato - Più mosso - Tempo I [13:48]
CD2 [77:24]
Second Symphony (1924-26) in E minor and C major [38:54]
(dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky)
1 I Molto moderato - Allegro moderato [16:20]
2 II Andante - Più mosso - Poco largamente [12:11]
3 III Poco largamente - Allegro feroce - Meno mosso [10:13]
Fourth Symphony (1930) [38:19]
(Dedicated to Paul Corder)
4 I Allegro moderato [15:35]
5 II Lento moderato - Più mosso (Allegro moderato) [12:45]
6 III Allegro - Allegro scherzando [9:50]
CD3 [73:41]
Fifth Symphony (1931-32) [37:55]
(dedicated to Jean Sibelius)
1 I Poco lento - Allegro con fuoco [15:46]
2 II Poco lento - Molto tranquillo - Tempo I [10:12]
3 III Poco moderato - Allegro - Lento - Tempo I (Allegro) [11:48]
Sixth Symphony (1934-35) [35:33]
(dedicated to Adrian Boult)
4 I Moderato - Allegro con fuoco [10:06]
5 II Lento, molto espressivo - Andante con moto [8:19]
6 III Introduction. Lento moderato - Poco più vivo [16:57]
CD4 [69:37]
1 Rogue's Comedy Overture (1936) [9:59]
(dedicated to Julius Harrison)
premiere recording
2 Tintagel (1917-19) [15:13]
(dedicated to Miss Harriet Cohen)
Seventh Symphony (1938-39) [44:02]
(dedicated to the People of America)
3 I Allegro - Poco meno mosso - Tempo I [16:39]
4 II Lento - Più mosso. In Legendary Mood - Tempo I [13:32]
5 III Theme and Variations: Allegro [13:38]
CD5 [60:43]
Interview with Vernon Handley by Andrew McGregor
BBC Philharmonic/Vernon Handley
Recorded in: Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 4 January 2002 (Third Symphony), 5 January 2002 (Tintagel), 19 December 2002 (Fourth Symphony), 14 January 2003 (Second Symphony), 6-8 August 2003 (Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, Rogue's Comedy Overture), 5 September 2003 (First Symphony)
CHANDOS CHAN 10122 [5CDs: 74:03+77:24+73:41+69:37+60:43]

"The question of Bax…is a question of bothering – bothering to look at and study the scores. He must, in the nature of things, eventually find his ideal interpreter."

At the time Christopher Whelen wrote that statement in 1970, it must have appeared that Bax had few if any supporters. Most of Bax’s ardent champions were either dead or near death. Few of the up-and-coming British conductors were showing much enthusiasm toward Bax except perhaps Norman Del Mar, Maurice Handford and Vernon Handley. Handley and Del Mar each had a recording of a Bax symphony to his credit by 1970 but when in 1971 Lyrita decided to continue its Bax symphony cycle, they chose a conductor with almost no history of performing Bax’s music. Raymond Leppard conducted the final two recordings in that cycle and his Baxian credentials were a little more established. Handford and Del Mar did record a few Bax symphonies for BBC Radio 3 during the late 1960s and early 1970s but their efforts on Bax’s behalf were soon superseded by those of Vernon Handley. During the 1970s and 1980s, Handley emerged as Bax’s most committed champion and he recorded an impressive number of Bax’s orchestral works for BBC Radio 3. He also managed the occasional concert performance but invitations to record Bax’s music commercially never came.

It’s well known that when Chandos decided to embark on a Bax series in the 1980s, they chose house conductor Bryden Thomson rather than Vernon Handley, who at that time was closely associated with EMI. Thomson was not that familiar with Bax’s music when he started his cycle but he succeeded brilliantly in his first few recordings with the Ulster Orchestra. When he began recording the symphonies with the London Philharmonic, his performances became more mannered and heavy and the sound of the recordings more reverberant and harsh. His Chandos recordings of the symphonies have beautiful moments but aren’t very successful as a whole and I personally find them very difficult to listen to with the exception of the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies.

Handley came very close to recording a complete Bax set for EMI Eminence. His recordings of Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams had won many accolades and as a reward for his sterling work, EMI invited him to record Bax. Unfortunately, a shake-up in the management at EMI nixed those plans and the set never occurred. Around that same time, Handley was approached by Naxos to record a Bax cycle but he had to decline due to his commitment to record the symphonies for EMI. By the time the EMI deal fell through, Naxos had already offered the project to David Lloyd-Jones who went on to record a complete cycle that only just concluded with the release last month (October 2003) of the Seventh Symphony. Following the sluggish Thomson set, the Lloyd-Jones recordings came as a breath of very fresh air. Lloyd-Jones’s leaner and more urgent approach to Bax challenged many critics’ assumptions that Bax’s symphonies are rhapsodic and structurally unsound. In fact, the Lloyd-Jones recordings brought about a reappraisal of Bax that cannot be overestimated. While some have criticized the Naxos recordings for the sterile sound or even Lloyd-Jones’s performances for lacking interpretive flair, it should also be kept in mind that these recordings have done more to introduce Bax to a wider audience and in effect, make the new Handley set possible.

The Vernon Handley set came about thanks primarily to the General Manager of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Brian Pidgeon. Handley had been invited to record Bax’s Third Symphony and Tintagel with the BBC Philharmonic and those recordings were to be released as a companion disc to the October 2003 BBC Music Magazine issue honoring the 50th anniversary of Bax’s death. Pidgeon attended the recordings sessions and was so impressed with Handley’s performances that he proposed to the BBC that Handley be invited to record the entire set for broadcast on Radio 3. At the same time he approached Chandos with an invitation to release the recordings and remarkably, both the BBC and Chandos gave the go ahead to the project. I suspect the success of the Naxos series encouraged them to proceed. Both Chandos and BBC wanted to broadcast and release the recordings in time for last month’s anniversary so a very short recording schedule was planned. Handley recorded the remaining six symphonies and the Rogue’s Comedy Overture in less than nine months time. The First and Sixth Symphonies were recorded in September following a highly acclaimed public performance by Handley and the BBC Philharmonic of both symphonies. The Manchester BBC team as well as Chandos rushed the completed recordings into production and the set was released in mid October 2003. So finally, we have our Vernon Handley Bax set. Has the wait been worth it? I can honestly say: even more than I imagined.

What sets these recordings apart from those of Thomson, Lloyd-Jones and the partial Lyrita set is that here we have a master conductor, at the absolute height of his powers interpreting music that he loves passionately. While Thomson, Fredman, Leppard and Lloyd-Jones are all very fine conductors and certainly did their best by Bax, they were not in any way specialists in his music before making their recordings and their performances by-and-large lack the authority that is so characteristic of these new recordings. Hearing Handley in this music has been a revelation in the way that he is able to express so much affection for the music while at the same time maintaining a very tight and steady control of the tempo. I have no hesitation in recommending the new Handley performances over all the competition in all but one of the symphonies and there the competition is rather close. Apart from the performances themselves, these new recordings absolutely trounce the competition in terms of the extraordinary quality of the sound (a weakness in the Thomson set) and the orchestral playing (a weakness in the Lloyd-Jones set…those RSNO strings just can’t match the lush sound produced by their colleagues in the BBC Phil). BBC sound engineer Stephen Rinker has done an amazing job capturing all the detail of the playing in a very open and warm acoustic. The immediacy of the sound truly is startling. Not since the classical Lyrita recordings of the 70s has Bax been so well served sonically.

What follows is my own subjective assessment of how these new Handley recordings compare with earlier recordings of each of the symphonies:

Symphony No. 1 - Here Handley absolutely annihilates the competition. This new recording is one the great glories of the set and I suspect it will go a long way in rehabilitating the reputation of this symphony, even among ardent Baxians. The problem has always been in the rather bombastic final movement that in some performances doesn’t follow naturally after the overwhelming ferocity and tragedy of the first two movements. Handley’s performance of the last movement has a good deal more weight and majesty about it as well as a sparkling energy that comes from Handley’s scrupulous attention to dynamics. For once it doesn’t come across as an afterthought but rather as a triumphal conclusion to a battle hard fought. Thomson is also very good in this movement but his fondness for frequent ritenutos distorts the first movement all out of shape. Fredman’s premiere recording on Lyrita is extremely well recorded and played but seems just a little too clean and efficient for this extremely dramatic music. I’m very fond of the Lloyd-Jones interpretation on Naxos but here his engineers really let him down and the recording is just too aggressive and bright to be enjoyed on a regular basis. And while Lloyd-Jones certainly matches Handley in terms of visceral power, he doesn’t allow for the same sort of expressive playing that Handley and the BBC Phil manage. Theirs is the more personal and involving performance and in sound that is absolutely state-of-the-art.

Symphony No.2 – My standard reference recording for this great masterwork has always been Myer Fredman’s Lyrita recording from the early 1970s. For one thing, it is brilliantly recorded and for the most part, brilliantly played by the London Philharmonic. Things do get a little sticky in the lead up to the big climax in the second movement but considering the time restraints this recording was made under, it is a very successful production. Bryden Thomson’s interpretation is typically expansive and he emphasizes the dark undercurrents of the score but does so at the expense of any forward momentum. His performance literally plods along in the final movement and some of the playing by the London Philharmonic is very untidy. His epilogue is certainly the bleakest on record and I have to commend the performance for some very individual touches but overall it is just too heavy and flat. David Lloyd-Jones’s interpretation is a very fine one but his RSNO simply can’t create the huge sonorous sound that is required for this symphony and much of the blame there is the very dry recording. The new Handley easily surpasses both the Thomson and Lloyd-Jones accounts and actually the old Fredman too although I wouldn’t want to be without it. Handley’s performance is the most tempestuous, expressive and concentrated but I do miss a little of the grave power Fredman achieves in the final movement as a result of taking it just a tad slower. However, Fredman’s performance of the epilogue isn’t nearly as ominous as Handley’s (who is more measured here) and overall I would say Handley’s is now the definitive account.

Symphony No. 3 – Here the competition is a little tougher but even so Handley sweeps the board. His new recording is a revelation and easily the best since the Barbirolli and if I had to chose between them, I’d chose the new Handley for its obviously superior sound and orchestral playing and for an even more dramatic performance. The Third Symphony isn’t the easiest symphony to pull off, evidently. Edward Downes secures fine playing from the London Symphony Orchestra in his 1969 RCA recording but the performance never catches fire. I can’t even listen to the Thomson recording because it is just too slow and the symphony sounds disjointed in his hands. The Lloyd-Jones is an improvement but it strikes me as just a bit under characterized. That certainly can’t be said of the old Barbirolli but Handley’s new recording is every bit as affectionate and warm while at the same time being tauter and more brilliant. Admittedly, it has taken me a little while to get used to the very fast opening tempo of the first movement. The great interweave of the theme among the woodwinds is very stark and really moves quickly. By the time we reach the Allegro Moderato, the music is really moving along quickly, but not frantically – and that is an important point. What I like most about this performance is that there is always a sense of power in reserve and when Handley has to calls upon that power such as in the coda to the first movement, the impact is overwhelming. The glorious second movement is very expressively phrased but I would have liked a more pronounced harp during the magical piu Lento section of this movement – but in every other way, the performance and recording couldn’t be improved upon. The third movement opens with terrific force and the entire movement is very urgently and steadily paced. The great epilogue is the best on record, no question. It is grave and otherworldly rather than sweet and sentimental – and really quite chilling as a result. This recording is truly a tremendous achievement.

Symphony No. 4 – The most problematic of Bax’s symphonies???? That has certainly been its reputation but I believe that assertion is unjust. It is a joyful, brilliant, exhilarating and at times very moving symphony that requires the very best playing and most sensitive conducting of the entire set to come off properly. Certainly, the first movement can sound very rhapsodic if it isn’t paced with the right amount of control. My chief complaint about the otherwise brilliant Thomson recording is that he seems to start and stop a lot in that movement and it all sounds disjointed. I quite like the Lloyd-Jones on Naxos as he’s very disciplined and he really keeps things moving but in comparison with the new Handley, he’s a little poker faced and a lot less expressive. The new Handley is unquestionably the greatest recording of this fine symphony although I do wish he hadn’t taken the coda to the final movement quite so fast. It is thrilling but perhaps it doesn’t have the overwhelming grandeur that his semi-amateur Guildford Philharmonic forces were able to summon in his earlier 1964 recording. Of course, that recording can’t compete with Handley’s remake in terms of playing or sound but it is a remarkable interpretation and I’m not sure Handley has improved upon it, at least in the last movement. Still, the new Handley is stunning and I can’t imagine it being improved upon any time soon.

Symphony No. 5 – Very surprisingly, this fascinating but still rather difficult symphony has consistently brought out the very best from all its interpreters. This is the one Bax symphony that has never received a bad performance, in my opinion. Raymond Leppard’s premiere recording on Lyrita is outstanding. It is very naturally and sensitively paced as well as brilliantly played and recorded and Leppard has always been the most successful in avoiding any strain or bombast in the epilogue of the last movement. Bryden Thomson on Chandos isn’t nearly as successful in the epilogue. His pulse is way too slow there but that is the only blemish on an otherwise brilliant performance, easily the best from his entire set. Certainly, his is the most expressive and personal performance up until now. The Fifth Symphony also brings out the best in Lloyd-Jones although here again, the playing and recording do let him down, particularly in the middle movement, which sounds very scrappy at some points. As fine as all these recordings are, they pale in comparison to the new Handley, perhaps the highlight of his set. Again, Handley’s urgent but very expressive phrasing pays huge dividends, particularly in the first movement, which sounds much more cogent and exciting than usual. His performance of the second movement is darker and more brooding while the last movement is also the fastest on record but again, not frantic and he does allow the tempo to slow down enough so that the glorious chorales do sound majestic. Handley is as successful as Leppard in navigating his way from the last chorale into the epilogue and his performances ends on an even more triumphant note. This is an astonishing performance that should convince everyone that the Fifth Symphony is as great a symphony as Bax ever wrote.

Symphony No. 6 – Arguably Bax’s masterpiece and not only Handley’s favorite Bax symphony but also among his favorite of all pieces of music. You would suspect then that his performance would be something very special and indeed it is. I predict this performance will become the standard reference for many people but I have to admit that I am still very partial to Norman Del Mar’s classic Lyrita recording from the late 1960s, despite its spot-lit sound. It may be the case of a very personal performance imprinting itself so vividly into my imagination that no other performance quite sounds right. Certainly the old Thomson doesn’t challenge it primarily because the reverberant recording is so bad but also because his pacing in the middle movement and the scherzo and the huge climax of the last movement is so lethargic that the symphony loses most of its power. I find his performance very underwhelming. I prefer Douglas Bostock’s interpretation but his Munich players are overwhelmed by the demands of this symphony and they’re recorded in a very dry acoustic. David Lloyd-Jones’ recording on Naxos is extremely fine and actually quite similar to the new Handley although Lloyd-Jones is a little faster in the first movement. His may even be the most exciting of all in the huge climax and here he is assisted with better than average Naxos sound and an RSNO that sounds absolutely inspired. True, they still have a small string sound but the wind playing is exceptional. I love Handley’s slightly slower tempo for the first movement because he makes it sound so dark and barbaric. His pacing for the second movement is certainly fast but not much more so than Lloyd-Jones. He also benefits from John Bradbury’s extraordinary clarinet solo in the opening of the third movement. Admittedly, I’m not yet comfortable with the slight acceleration in tempo he takes after figure 34 where the direction is Poco and then Molto largamente (for a broadening effect) as it seems to undercut the intense majesty of the music in that section but that’s a very minor quibble. Handley’s way with the epilogue is extraordinary. It’s not as slow or serene as some others but again he manages to create an otherworldly atmosphere that is deeply profound. I have no hesitation in recommending the new Handley as the definitive available choice due to the superiority of the playing and recording as well as Handley’s many insights into the score but for me it will still have to come behind Del Mar. For me, Del Mar remains the best at being able to combine the relentless energy and logic of Handley and Lloyd-Jones with a kind of haunting magic and beauty that is unique to his account. This is very subjective of course, but it is the Del Mar that moves me the most deeply and convinces me that this symphony is among the greatest masterworks of music. Unfortunately, the Del Mar is not available unless you are lucky enough to have it on LP. Until it finds its way onto CD, the new Handley will serve as my reference but the Lloyd-Jones is just about as good.

Symphony No. 7 – My sentimental favorite of all Bax symphonies (as it was the first I ever heard) and judging from Handley’s performance, I suspect he has a special place in his heart for it as well because his performance is so affectionate and sensitive. It has all the magic and beauty that this great symphony requires and easily surpasses all the competition. That said, Thomson is very good in this symphony too and I love his way with the opening movement. He’s a little too slow in the second movement and perhaps a bit too dry eyed in the glorious epilogue but I still enjoy hearing the Thomson from time to time. I love the old Leppard recording on Lyrita but Handley’s is even more imaginative and engaging in the outer movements. The great glory of the Leppard recording has always been the lento middle movement and I’m not sure Handley surpasses him but he certainly matches him at tempos a little faster and a coda that is just as moving. I was terribly disappointed with the new Lloyd-Jones on Naxos. Something went terribly wrong with the recording as it’s just awful and even the performance sounds coarse - a particularly inappropriate sound for this beautiful symphony. Handley again becomes my new reference in this work.

Tintagel and Rogue’s Comedy Overture – The only other conductor to ever have recorded the Rogue’s Comedy Overture is Handley himself – for Lyrita but never released. I can’t imagine a more engaging or coherent performance than this new recording. It’s a very likable piece and one that shows off the brilliance of the BBC Philharmonic players. This is Handley’s first recording of Tintagel and here the competition is very stiff. The top contenders are obviously Goossens in a very fast and passionate interpretation that is soon to be re-released on Symposium, the Decca Boult from the mid 1950s (a far superior performance to his rather leaden Lyrita account but not nearly as well recorded), the EMI Barbirolli from the mid 1960s and the very fine Thomson with the Ulster Orchestra on Chandos. Handley’s performance is actually unlike any of them in that he is broader and more atmospheric and his is unquestionably the most beautiful performance of Tintagel I’ve ever heard and I would rank it along side the Barbirolli as my favorite. Both interpretations complement each other because both approaches are so different but in their ways equally effective.

In addition to the music, we also get an hour-long interview with the great Maestro himself as well as a written interview with him in the liner notes. Bax has never had a more articulate or knowledgeable champion and it is a pleasure to hear and read his comments. I am very grateful to the BBC and Chandos for making the audio interview available. It will remain an important historical document on the dedication and understanding of a master musician on behalf of a great composer. Handley is indeed the conductor that Whelen was hoping would come about and rescue Bax from obscurity. That it took nearly 30 years for these recordings to come about only indicates how long it can sometimes take to revive a reputation. I’m just grateful that Handley has at last been invited to record these symphonies that he loves so much. I have no hesitation to compare this set of recordings in terms of importance or musical greatness with the definitive editions of Beecham’s Delius, Barbirolli’s Elgar, Boult’s Vaughan Williams, Kempe’s Strauss, Karajan’s Bruckner, Bernstein’s Mahler, Martinon’s Ravel, etc – these Bax performances are truly that great. Now, will someone please invite Handley to record November Woods, Garden of Fand and the Winter Legends!

Richard Adams
see also review by Rob Barnett
Graham Parlett

The Arnold bax Web-site

 



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