This is currently the only way to obtain Bryden Thomson’s version
of Bax’s First Symphony, as the first disc of the complete symphonies.
It is available as an mp3 download for £5.50 or as a lossless
download in wma, wav and aiff formats (CHAN8906W) for £9.90.
The original fillers which accompanied the symphony are available
in different couplings among Chandos’s mid-price reissues of Bax’s
orchestral music. This is a generous coupling, but the problem
is that many potential purchasers will already have Thomson’s
version of the Sixth Symphony, also available as a download with
its original coupling, the Festival Overture, on CHAN8586. You
could, in that case, purchase just the three separate movements
of the First Symphony on its own for £4.50 (mp3) or £8.10 (lossless).
Having reviewed the other Bryden Thomson Bax symphonies
as mp3 downloads, I tried the lossless (wma) version of this
recording. I had no complaints about any of them in mp3 versions,
but the wma download does bring noticeable improvement. I burned
the First Symphony onto CDR along with a Proms performance of
Bax’s unacknowledged symphony, Spring Fire, which has
been sitting on my hard drive recorder for a long time, awaiting
a suitable partner. That Proms broadcast sounds pretty good
– I can’t now remember whether it was from my DAB or FM tuner
– but the opening of the Chandos puts it completely to shame
as a recording.
The First Symphony is not well known, mainly because
of its episodic nature. Bryden Thomson was never one to resist
savouring the beauties of Bax’s music to the full; in the case
of this symphony more than any other, therefore, his reading
doesn’t fully hang together – his overall time of 36:55 is a
good five minutes slower than any other version in the catalogue.
It’s good – very good – in parts but, with memories of a Radio
3 broadcast of Vernon Handley’s later Chandos recording in mind,
I found this the least convincing of the cycle.
That Handley version is available on CD only as
part of a box set (CHAN10122), but the separate discs are available
as downloads in mp3 and lossless form for £8.40 and £10.00 respectively.
His coupling of the First and Third Symphonies offers good value
with a playing time of 74:03 – or, if you already have a version
of the Third with which you are happy, the First may be purchased
separately (£5.60 or £7.20, which makes the lossless version
much cheaper than the equivalent version of the Thomson recording).
David Lloyd-Jones, too, offers a much brisker and
tighter account (Naxos 8.553525, CD or download from classicsonline),
though one of his couplings, The Garden of Fand, is surely
in the collection of any serious Bax lover – you may already
have the recommendable Bryden Thomson recording, now reissued
on Chandos’s mid-price series (CHAN10156X, CD or download from
Chandos’s own theclassicalshop or from classicsonline – see
The best value of all is offered by Lyrita, whose
very creditable LPO/Myer Fredman version of the First is coupled
with Raymond Leppard’s Seventh (SRCD232 – see review).
This recording is also available as a download from emusic: just
six tracks from your monthly subscription.
I have said that there are some (very) good things
about the Thomson version. Not least of them is the powerful
opening to the first movement: Bax marks it feroce and
it’s certainly that in this performance. The slow movement,
too, is faithful to the solenne marking and Thomson captures
the sense of mystery which has led to this movement being compared
with Holst. The finale opens with a fine account of the allegro
maestoso. Where Thomson is least convincing is in the change
of gear into the tempo di marcia trionfale in the
finale – the coda to any Bax symphony is always difficult to
bring off convincingly without creating a sense of disjunction.
Listening once through without trying to score points brought
less of a sense of disjunction than when I listened critically
– perhaps I was just looking to find fault at that stage – but,
as I recall, Vernon Handley carries the transition more convincingly.
The Sixth Symphony is an attractive work, though
it would be idle to pretend that it is likely to make the same
impact on the listener as Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, especially
the Fourth, which is almost exactly contemporary with the Bax
Sixth. The Bax is more immediately approachable than the VW,
which is rather hard to take on first hearing, but the VW is
ultimately by far the more memorable.
As so often, however, we must not let the best
blind us to the values of the very good. Bax was at his creative
peak, with the ideas coming thick and fast – and hot – and if
the work is less coherent than the VW, that is mainly due to
the intensity of Bax’s composition. The storm clouds are certainly
brewing in the VW, but we sometimes need the bluer, though not
trouble-free, skies of the Bax.
The obvious rival Sixth in the price-range of the
Chandos downloads, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under
David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos (8.557144 – around £5-6 on CD or
£4.99 as a download from classicsonline), is a thoroughly recommendable
account and well recorded, with two valuable fillers, Into
the Twilight and Summer Music. Anyone who purchases
the Naxos is likely to be happy with the product – as I have
been for some years now. IL made it Bargain of the Month (see
and RB made it his top recommendation (see review).
As usual, Lloyd-Jones comes in noticeably faster
in all three movements and his time overall is four minutes
shorter than Thomson. The obvious inference is that Thomson
must be too slow, especially when the newer Chandos recording
under Vernon Handley agrees with the Naxos – he takes slightly
longer than either of his rivals for the first movement but
undercuts both in the second and equals Lloyd-Jones in the last
movement. Though available on CD only in the box set, the Handley
is available separately to download – an excellent bargain,
coupled with the Fifth Symphony, for £8.40 (mp3) or £10 (lossless).
Yet, as I have so often said, tempo alone is not
what matters. Play a short passage from Thomson’s recording
alongside Lloyd-Jones or Handley in the Building a Library manner
and you will probably prefer the slightly sharper interpretations
of the new recordings. Play the Thomson version of the Sixth
Symphony in its entirety and, unless you go for the faster interpretation
automatically, you will find his account equally recommendable.
Yes, Thomson makes both symphonies here sound episodic
– and Bax’s symphonies are undeniably less tightly structured
than those of, say, Vaughan Williams, who understandably ousted
him in popularity – but by lingering along the road he allows
us more time to savour the beauties of the landscape. There
wasn’t a single moment when I wished he would get a move on
– and he isn’t the slowest interpreter of the Sixth: Norman
del Mar on Lyrita takes even longer than Thomson in the first
two movements and only slightly undercuts him in the third.
Whichever version you choose, your overview of
the Bax symphonies will be incomplete without the First. Paradoxically,
I came to it last, having already got to know Nos. 2-6 and a
nodding acquaintance with No.7. Though, as I have indicated,
memories of hearing the Handley version of the First are not
expunged, I am perfectly happy to live with Thomson’s version
– and more than happy with his version of the Sixth. But do
bear in mind that Handley’s First is a more economical proposition
as a download, as well as offering an excellent performance.
The downloads of the separate symphonies in this
Thomson cycle all come with the ability to download the booklet
of notes. Sadly, that is not the case with this recording, but
it is possible to download and print out the pdf. booklet which
accompanies the separate issue of the Sixth and the booklet for
the Handley set – an interview with the conductor – is also offered
free to all comers. If it’s notes on the First Symphony that
you require, these can be obtained from the Naxos booklet, available
on their website.