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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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]

When the history of recording and its role in the renaissance or sustenance of composer’s music comes to be written we will look back on the birth of the CD as a decisive moment in time. We did not know it back then but when the medium arrived in 1983 it was to prove the confident and robust carrier for an ambitious extension of the repertoire. Who could have predicted then that twenty years later we would have complete cycles of the symphonies of Miaskovsky, Schmidt, Sauguet, Milhaud, Searle, Braga-Santos, Holmboe, Simpson and Moyzes? And now we have the third complete cycle of Bax symphonies and two of them from the same company: Chandos.

Who else in music sounds like Bax? Although you will find moments in Moeran, Bainton, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Sainton and Hadley in the UK and further afield in Rachmaninov, early Stravinsky, Rimsky, Miaskovsky and Ivanovs where similarities arise Bax remains utterly personal and distinctive. His personality is as immediately present as that of Martinů, Sibelius or Janáček. With Chandos’s mid-price set Bax can truly be said to have arrived. Anyone who considers themselves an enthusiast of British music must have this set.

Bax has for far too long stood in the shadow of other symphonists. In the British stakes the long received wisdom is that Bax’s Seven must stand aside in favour of Vaughan Williams’ Nine. How much of this has to do with birth years or the perceptions of the English psyche I am not sure but these and other factors have played their role in suppressing curiosity and ultimately enthusiasm. Vaughan Williams centenary celebrations came before Bax’s with much deserved fanfaring in 1972. Bax had to wait until 1983. Given what has happened it is just as well that they did not share birth and death dates for otherwise, in superficial media terms, Bax’s fame would have been buried deep. So far as psyche is concerned RVW’s mysticism and extreme beauty, despite his agnosticism, has a Protestant restraint about it. Vaughan Williams’ music has plenty of ecstatic moments (witness the Fifth Symphony, the great tune in The Wasps overture, the serenading episodes in Sir John in Love, the Tallis Fantasia, the swallow-fall vocal gliss at the end of Serenade to Music, the peaceful violin cantilena in the Sixth Symphony, the Dirge for Two Veterans in Dona Nobis Pacem and many more) but this is a spiritual ecstasy rather than sensual or erotic abandon.

Bax’s music represents the other side of the coin. His music speaks of the expression and fusion of extremes of emotion, fantasy and passion. Bax’s list is just as long as Vaughan Williams’: the woodland episode from The Happy Forest; the yearning theme from November Woods; the dew-dripping fragile magic of Spring Fire; the thunderous power of the Sixth Symphony as well as its ineffable and enchanted epilogue; the up-tilted scenic fanfares of the second movement of the Fifth Symphony; the dazzling breakers of the Fourth Symphony; the Sheherazade theme in the first movement of the Violin Concerto; the love song that crowns the second movement of the Second Symphony; the trilled and curvaceous farewell of the Seventh Symphony’s finale; the visceral excitement of The Tale the Pine Trees Knew; the stormy restless crippled beauty of the Piano Quintet (a symphony manqué if ever there was one); the violence and snowy beauty of Winter Legends and the First Northern Ballad. The list is as long as that of Vaughan Williams.

The issue is not one of superiority. It is a matter of asserting the idiomatic and very personal contribution that Bax has made to music. It is different from that of virtually any other composer. It merits a place in the listening plans of any music lover and once it has asserted its grip it will not let relent. Bax’s significance is not simply a matter of musical history but is to be found in the passionate eloquence of his voice - his expressive ability to communicate with modern audiences about states of abandon; about melody and about a beauty that surprises by its power to shake the listener, to excite and to move to tears. The difficulty with this sort of ‘purple’ is that it may suggest music that is garrulous and meandering. In fact Bax rarely sinks into ‘warbling rhapsody’ (though some miscalculated performances have projected him in this way - notable Downes in his 1969 LSO/RCA recording). He is no Delius, no Scriabin, no Sorabji. I do not mean to imply that these composers ‘rhapsodise’ rather that Bax, while meditative, is also impulsive and propulsive. He is elaborate in his orchestral textures but when well calculated and recorded (as they are in this Handley set) these do not coagulate but have a diaphanous glow. Bax is also good at fury and fear, loss and consolation - hard-won, climactic music thrusting and dynamic. Handley commented many years ago about the dangers of playing Bax as if he were Rachmaninov or Strauss - two composers to which his music bears a passing resemblance. The key is in tempo and, as seasoned Baxians will hear, Handley now surprises us from time to time.

The set starts in the best possible fashion with a First that is extremely good. Before now Handley has spoken of the importance if finding and keeping in touch with the correct pulse in Bax. In this case his grip on that elusive quality hardly slackens through change after change. Bax's opulent writing and orchestration encourages self- indulgence as the old Downes/LSO of the Third Symphony LP (RCA) showed. Handley both in this symphony and in the others shows a lifetime's familiarity and wisdom in his choices although as we shall see some may surprise those of us who have imprinted on other readings (commercial and radio) including those of Norman Del Mar (1, 3, 6), Goossens (2), Handford (4), Leppard (3, 5, 7), Iain Whyte (4), Harry Newstone (an extraordinary radio b/c of 5), Leslie Head (2, 5, 7), Robinson (1, 5), Fredman (1-3), Sargent (3), Groves (6, 7) and Schwarz (3, 7).

I would not want to push this too far but there is a strong sense in this set of Handley discovering the spikiness, accelerations (listen to the Sacre-like speedings up in the first movement of the Second) and jagged crags in Bax’s music rather than the mellifluous, dreamy or curvaceous - not that he neglects the legato but he does not allow it to stifle the active counterbalancing elements. Handley is to Bax what Pinnock is to Handel; rediscovering the animus and pulse of the music where predecessors have emphasised the softer contours. Barbirolli, Downes and Thomson (also on Chandos, remarkably enough) tended to the languorous. Handley shares with Stanford Robinson, Del Mar and Bostock (rather undermined by the thin-sounding Munich orchestra in his otherwise well-conceived ClassicO version) a sense of the excitement in Bax’s music. The other thing this set brings out is attributable in no small part to the Chandos engineers. Manchester’s Studio 7 has always sounded vibrant and alive as the studio broadcasts since the 1980s have shown. Here the ambience as captured puts across the Russian habit adopted by Bax of juxtaposing glinting super-highs and profound depths - I have always suspected that Alexander Sveshnikov’s RSFSR Academic Russian Choir would have made a superb Mater Ora Filium - compare their 1960s performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers on Melodiya (now on the Korean label Yedang or Pipeline). There is the same rapture in the extremes although there the sepulchral basses impress most strongly. Bells, triangle and even anvil (try the Third Symphony’s first movement) ring out through the texture and deeper voices contrast for example the gut-wrenching double bass swell at the start of the Sixth, the tuba solo in the Fifth and the organ-underpinned sections of the Second and Fourth Symphonies (coincidentally grouped on CD2). The Handley ‘brilliants’ are treated with brightness and prominent eminence although as in the epilogues of the Third and the Sixth they are allowed to glow tactfully rather than ring out in assertive insensitivity.

This First is a market leader standing above what now seems the mood-neutral Lloyd-Jones version. Indeed there is a certain emotional coolness that afflicts the Naxos series. Lloyd-Jones is never less than clear but he is at his unequivocal best in symphonies 4, 6 (possibly modelled on the Del Mar Lyrita recording?) and 7. The First was featured with the Sixth at the Manchester BBCPO/Handley concert on 3 October 2003. It was given a breath-taking performance and I suspect many had cause to reassess it that night - I certainly did. In fact it rather put the Sixth in the shade on that occasion. The Fourth has been lucky on CD. Lloyd-Jones is magnificent and I would not want to take away from his reading in praising this. Handley’s reminded me often in exegesis of his 1960s conception of the piece from the Guildford Philharmonic. It has that same belligerent energy yet takes time to draw breath to take in the exuberant seascapes - in some ways like a Brangwyn canvas. It is a ‘big’ work but without strong symphonic structural credentials. Festive-idyllic rather like Bantock’s Pagan or Cyprus, Alfvén’s Fourth Symphony or perhaps Strauss’s Alpine Symphony - though with infinitely better melodic material, it sounds extremely well in this version. This version of the Fifth grows on you. By the time I had heard it for the fourth time its imaginative world began to communicate more effectively. The excitement and gaud of the two early symphonies (more Pohjola than Baba Yaga) is magnificently put across. Lloyd-Jones sounds curiously dispassionate - something that cannot be said of Leppard’s version on Lyrita (LP - not reissued) or the radio 1960s broadcast by Harry Newstone. This is all rather academic anyway as neither of these is on CD. The Thomson version is quite good and sounds well, I think although he is so weak in many other respects in his cycle. The Fifth belongs naturally in the same universe as the three Northern Ballads, Winter Legends (which I hope Handley will go onto record with John McCabe) and The Tale the Pine Trees Knew. The Sixth is a work that reminds us that Bax is as much of a colossus as Sibelius. If you know one of my monuments of recorded sound and interpretation - Mravinsky’s 1965 Leningrad version of the Sibelius Seventh Symphony - you will know what I am talking about here. Here Thomson is acceptable, Del Mar (still chained to LP) and Lloyd-Jones visionary. Handley and his orchestra produce an awesome performance from the thudding volatile opening to the wrenching worlds in collision of the finale to an epilogue that opens a fragile pristine wonderland to our minds - as powerful as the desolation of the finale RVW’s Sixth and Holst’s Egdon Heath but something of otherworldly enchanted beauty. Handley has the advantage over the Del Mar of being more naturally miked. Del Mar’s Lyrita engineers used close-up miking to produce some magical effects which one would never hear in the concert-hall. It remains superbly impressive but unnatural. Handley’s version of the Seventh is all splendour: warm and forward-moving. Perhaps it is too easy to read in non-existent things but I detect an air of repletion and satiated finality about this symphony. Here was a man who knew that the flame was irretrievably guttering but who mustered the oxygen of inspiration one last time. This is a grand canvas with no high drama instead a discursive meditation. The Symphony makes for an emotionally eloquent paraph to his symphonic career. Oddly I do not recall any talk of a spectral eighth. For Bax there was no Sibelian toying with an expectant media. Would it have been different if the musical world had been baying for another symphony? I doubt it. Thomson, Handley and Leppard contribute good Sevenths though only Leppard catches the crepuscular horizon-bound fluttering to fully magical effect. Handley by the way is nowhere near as quick as David Lloyd-Jones whose Naxos version I enjoyed. Nevertheless Handley is completely convincing; this work rewardingly bears a range of interpretations. The most famous of the symphonies for reasons associated with Henry Wood’s loyalty to the work is the Third Symphony. Parts of Handley’s reading are faster than we are accustomed to but personally I find this a sympathetic quality. The Third has some extremely Russian moments especially in the first two movements and Handley drives this music forward like Svetlanov in his Rimsky and Balakirev recordings. In the epilogue in which Bax gazes with conscious-lost hypnotised fascination into a Celtic paradise Handley is a mite too fast for my taste but there is little in it and overall I rate this extremely highly. It is almost certainly the Symphony that Handley has conducted most often. He knows its every rush, scramble, breath and sigh.

This is not the first boxed set of all seven Bax symphonies. That honour goes to Bryden Thomson’s Chandos box (also still available for about the same price). It is however the first box where the series features a single conductor and a single orchestra. Remember that the Thomson series started auspiciously with a superbly exuberant Fourth Symphony recorded in vintage digital splendour with the Ulster Orchestra. Chandos then moved to the London Philharmonic developing a torpid tendency with sound quality to match; the recordings of symphonies 5, 6 and 7 were better. In Handley’s case there is no trace of torpor - extremely well judged. The rocking motion of the second movement of the Sixth Symphony was taken startlingly quick in the Manchester Studio 7 concert. Handley’s recorded version is not quite as quick.

In addition to being a first true intégrale this box delivers a first for Handley. He is the first conductor to have a second version of a Bax Symphony in the catalogue. His Revolution Records recording from 1964 of the Fourth (Guildford Philharmonic) is newly available on Concert Artists. It is there to compare in its still brightly lit immediacy with the grand sound-stage of the Chandos recording from December 2002. And while I am casting around for other ‘firsts’, I should note that the Handley box includes the world premiere recording of the cheeky and Bohemian flavoured Overture. This is not typical Bax but neither is it a Straussian effusion in the sense of the Picaresque Comedy Overture or the last movement of the Violin Concerto. The Rogues Comedy was included in the Manchester BBCPO studio concert which I attended on 3 October 2003. Sitting in Studio 3 listening to this odd-ball piece I thought of Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Schweik. The music has his irrepressible impudence - Eulenspiegel with a Bohemian accent and an irreverent anarchic edginess. Once I had Bohemia in my mind I started noticing other things - a jollity I associate with Dvořák’s Carnival overture and the wind writing reminded me of Zdenek Fibich’s overture A Night in Karlstein and the Third Symphony (the latter joyously recorded on Supraphon by Karel Sejna; the former wonderfully done for the same label by Vaclav Smetacek but not yet on CD).

With this overture on disc there remain only the Overture to Adventure and the Work-in-Progress Overture to come. Both were also recorded by Handley/LPO with another version of Rogues Comedy. These still reside in Richard Itter’s Lyrita vaults along with much else.

In the esteem of the moderately well-informed musical public Bax remains a figure at the periphery. This set should help redress that. Bax’s Tintagel has a tenacious hold on the public consciousness. Beyond its intrinsic romantic attractions it has the virtue of holding the door open for the discovery of other Bax works. It keeps his name in the public consciousness. So many conductors have championed it: Downes, Handley, Boult, Thomson, Pritchard, Goossens, Bostock, Leppard, Atherton, Ajmone-Marsan, Schwarz, Gibson, Davis, Van Steen, Robinson, Lawrence, Handford, Mackerras, Willcocks and Tausky. Handley takes it as broadly and richly as has become the norm in recent years - circa 15 minutes. This is nothing like the 11.59 taken by Eugene Goossens in his 1928 recording. There is still room for the visceral excitement and imagination of the Goossens pacing which still sounds extremely effective even across the void of 75 years. The Goossens recording together with other early Bax recordings is on Symposium 1336 (soon to be reviewed here).

Received wisdom suggests that you might progress from Tintagel to the Third Symphony which has been lauded since its sustained succès d’estime with Wood and Barbirolli. In fact it is an elusive piece which might initially disappoint and put off the lieges loyal to Tintagel. Better yet listeners should try The Garden of Fand (superb version by Barbirolli on Dutton) or Boult’s thrawn and passionate November Woods - a reference recording if ever there was one (Lyrita SRCD231 unfortunately linked to his etiolated Fand, Mediterranean and Tintagel although with a superbly braw Northern Ballad No. 1) for an experience closer to Tintagel. One needs to launch out into symphonic waters. If you want trumpeting exuberance and celebration in your symphony then go for the Fourth. At its boisterous best it has the feel of Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Kodály’s Peacock Variations. If you have Sibelian inclinations, and I would not want to over-stress the similarities (although they are there), then try the icy splendours and gaudy spectacle of the dynamic Fifth Symphony. The First Symphony has a decidedly Russian accent; not exclusively but certainly assertive in the mix. This is Bax still synthesising influences but the First is certainly a work that is fully satisfying if without the masterly transparency of orchestration found in the Third and Sixth Symphonies. The high romance of Tintagel is most closely approximated in the Second Symphony especially in the central movement which has a gift of a melody: a love song of indelibly memorable attainment. You can reach for parallels in the best of Tchaikovsky (say in the Fourth Symphony), in Rimsky’s Antar (every bit as good as Sheherazade) and in Stravinsky’s Firebird. This is flanked by movements that gloatingly hold open the door to some awesomely majestic Celtic Gehenna like a Kay Nielsen or Virgil Finlay illustration made flesh and blood, sea and cliff, gorge and tower. Again reach for parallels in the direction of Tchaikovsky - say Francesca da Rimini. Speaking of which, what a performance Mravinsky or Markevitch would have given of Bax’s Second! The Handley version of the Second Symphony is outstanding - though the work has been fortunate in some previous interpreters including Goossens (in the BBC studio in the 1950s) and Fredman on Lyrita (awaiting reissue with no real propsect of it ever happening).

This set is clearly intended as a ‘statement’. It is presented modestly but tastefully. It does not shout at you but the font and colour and texture bespeak a Baxian quality. The ‘look and feel’ is basic but stylish with all five discs presented in a card box or wallet in sleeves following the pattern set by Brilliant Classics (e.g. for the Barshai Shostakovich set). The box is in green leather-effect with gold lettering using the font adopted for Bax's Chandos series from the 1980s onwards. Each CD is housed in a stiff card slip-case with just the disc number (in rather small type) on the sleeve rather than any indication of contents. These are listed in detail in the booklet and in outline on the rear of the box. Each sleeve has session photos of Handley and the orchestra. The booklet runs to 56 pages and is further packed with photos of the recording sessions. The booklet comprises a 12 page interview between Handley and Foreman. It is not the same 60+ minute interview as that recorded on CD5 between Handley and Andrew MacGregor. The CDs themselves are plainly presented. The layout is economical with two symphonies per CD except for the Seventh which keeps house with Tintagel and the overture.

To sum up then: superb sound and presentation. Good price; this could easily have been marketed at full price! Superb readings throughout with the pinnacles being symphonies 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7. Please do not read this as criticism of 3 and 6. It is a matter of shading in relation to other recordings some of which are unavailable anyway.

Hearing the symphonies is an adventure - a journey of the emotions in which you will constantly be surprised and delighted, impressed and, most importantly, moved. Bax shows himself to be a poet of the emotions who does not shy from violence, whole-hearted celebration, ecstatic absorption in beauty, sorrow and drama. You could not have a better starting place and destination than this epochal set.

Rob Barnett

See also review by Richard Adams
Graham Parlett

The Arnold Bax Web-site

 

 



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