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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No.6 (1934-5) [39:35]
Festival Overture (1918) [15:34]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. All Saints Church, Tooting, London, 22-23 October, 1987.  DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN8586 [55:21]
Experience Classicsonline

This is another of the deleted recordings which Chandos have made available online as an mp3 recording for £6.
 
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 the composition.  The storm clouds are certainly brewing in the VW, but we sometimes want bluer skies.
 
As with other Chandos downloads of the Bax Symphonies that I have reviewed, I began by playing through the obvious rival in this price-range, 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), a thoroughly recommendable account and well recorded, with two valuable fillers, Into the Twilight and Summer Music.  As with the other symphonies in this series, anyone who purchases the Naxos account is likely to be happy with the product – as I have been for some years now.  IL made it Bargain of the Month – see review – 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, on mp3 and lossless downloads this is available separately – 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.  If a performance makes sense within its own terms, if it has the necessary impetus, tempo is of secondary importance.  Compare Klemperer’s mono LP recording of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony with his stereo remake and you will find two very different interpretations in terms of tempo but both are ultimately very satisfying because both have a real sense of impulse. 
 
Or compare Karl Richter’s recordings of the Bach Cantatas – a few of which are still available on CD, though, sadly, DG appear to have deleted most of the box sets in which they appeared in the 1990s – with more recent interpreters such as Gardiner and Koopman and you will find that, although Richter is regularly slower, the impetus of his performances means that they still satisfy.
 
So it is when comparing Bryden Thomson’s Bax with later interpreters.  Play a short passage from his 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 whizz-bang* interpretation automatically, you will find these older recordings equally recommendable. 
 
Yes, Thomson makes the music 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.  (* I really don’t mean to imply that either David Lloyd-Jones or Vernon Handley is a proponent of the whizz-bang school.)  Norman del Mar on Lyrita takes even longer than Thomson in the first two movements and only slightly undercuts him in the third.
 
I have already described the Naxos fillers as valuable.  I cannot quite say the same for the Chandos coupling, the Festival Overture, one of the works which Bryden Thomson rescued from neglect.  Festive it certainly is – rather noisily so; I enjoyed hearing it, but probably wouldn’t want to hear it every time I play the symphony.  It’s a bit too cheerful in its cheerfulness for me.
 
As with the other symphonies in this series, the mp3 sound is perfectly acceptable.  I think I may have wrongly implied in earlier reviews that all Chandos’s mp3s are at 320kbps, as their newer downloads are.  This recording is not offered at that higher bit-rate or as a lossless file, but if you are happy with BBC Radio 3 on FM or DAB, you will be equally happy with the 192kbps sound here.  Overall the recording, like the performance, is marginally less sharp than the Naxos.
 
The notes by Lewis Foreman, available as a pdf document which can be printed, are excellent – as, indeed, are Graham Parlett’s for Naxos.  Whichever version you decide on, the rival version’s notes will be available to you from the relevant website, free of charge.
 
If I ultimately lean slightly towards the Naxos, mainly because of the coupling, the decision is marginal.  Neither recording offers very good value timewise (57:29 for the Naxos, 55:21 for the Chandos).  I also prefer the stylish cover of the Naxos to Chandos’s garish orange effort.
 
Brian Wilson
 

 


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