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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Tintagel (1919) * [14:33]
The Garden of Fand** (1916) [16:32]
The Happy Forest (1921)**[9:39]
The Tale the Pine Trees Knew*** (1931) [16:38]
November Woods (1917)**** [16:48]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Recorded in the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow and *the Royal Scottish National Concert Hall on *21-22 August 2002; **31 January 1996; ***June 1996: **** August 1995 DDD
NAXOS 8.557599 [74:11]


These are not new performances, as the recording dates make clear. In fact, they were all previously issued as couplings to various releases in the Bax symphony cycle that these artists set down for Naxos between 1995 and 2002. I collected those CDs as they came out and it seemed to me at the time that Lloyd-Jones’s Bax cycle was a fine achievement. Since then, of course, Chandos has issued Vernon Handley’s magisterial set of the symphonies. That is now, by some distance, the prime recommendation for the symphonies but the considerable merits of the Lloyd-Jones series should not be overlooked and it’s been a pleasure to revisit these recordings of some of Bax’s finest orchestral works.

It seems to me that in all five scores David Lloyd-Jones displays a fine sense of grip and no little purpose. The incidental beauties of the many tranquil pages of these scores are properly savoured but one never gets an impression of wallowing. The music always seems to be moving forward. This is true of The Tale the Pine Trees Knew, a score that reflects Bax’s love of Scottish landscapes. Lloyd-Jones is sensitive to the changing moods of the piece and conveys plenty of atmosphere. I like the way that he brings out the dark beauty of its characteristic reflective passages.

>The Happy Forest is even more rarely heard than The Tale the Pine Trees Knew. I’m pretty sure that it was among the many Bax works that the late Bryden Thomson recorded for Chandos but, that apart, I suspect that this Naxos version is the only one to have reached the catalogues apart from the long-deleted RCA LP version by Sir Edward Downes, which has never made it onto CD. That performance, accompanied by a fine account of the Third Symphony was my first encounter with Bax’s music over three decades ago. The present Lloyd-Jones version is an excellent one. It’s an engaging piece, fully justifying the inclusion of the word “happy” in its title. Though Bax employs a full orchestra for much of the time the textures are light. In the extended slower central section there’s some lovely melodic material and Lloyd-Jones and his players relish this to the full. 

The other three works on the disc are better known.  November Woods is a very significant score, which always strikes me as containing several passages that bring Sibelius to mind, especially the Sibelius of Tapiola. In this successful reading the powerful first three or four minutes of music are strongly projected. Later, from about 4’30”, there’s an evocative, lyrical section where the tempo is much broader.  This nostalgic passage is convincingly handled by Lloyd-Jones but it’s the many powerful pages that make the greatest impact on the listener, or at least on this listener.

By contrast The Garden of Fand is a more sensuous piece. In this reading there’s an appropriate elfin lightness at the start. Later the music describes merrymaking on Fand’s island and the celebrations are put across very well in this performance.  The tumult as the sea overwhelms the island is most exciting and then the music comes full circle, returning to the innocence of the opening bars. Lloyd-Jones offers a convincing and enjoyable account of the work.

I’ve left till last my own favourite among these works, Tintagel. For my money the opening pages are among the most majestic, if not the most majestic, in all English music. The brass fanfares emerge gradually from the depths, increase in potency and finally burst forth into radiant splendour, the horns ringing heroically. Lloyd-Jones does this passage very well and then gives the long, lovely melody in which the cor anglais joins the strings all the space it needs but not at the expense of forward momentum. The more vigorous central section is excitingly done and then the concluding five minutes or so are tellingly shaped, giving the listener a real sense of sweep and of chivalrous deeds of derring-do. I don’t think this performance quite matches the splendid spaciousness of Vernon Handley’s conception, nor is the RSNO captured by the engineers with quite the same presence that the Chandos engineers achieve for the BBC Philharmonic. That said, this recording is convincing in its own right. 

These are good, sympathetic performances led by a conductor who seems to me to be fully in tune with the Baxian idiom. Lloyd-Jones obtains a committed response from the RSNO players and the performances are captured in good sound. These works generally show Bax writing in a more concise vein than is sometimes the case in his symphonies and so these colourful and atmospheric scores offer an excellent introduction to this composer’s unique sound world. Unless you already have these performances coupled to the recordings of the symphonies then you can invest with confidence.

John Quinn








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