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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    



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Chandos

 

Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No.4 (1931) [41:55]
Tintagel (1917-19) [14:57]
Ulster Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 10-11 April 1983. DDD.
Booklet with notes available as pdf. download
CHANDOS DOWNLOAD CHAN8312 [57:06] 
Experience Classicsonline


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Bryden Thomson’s series of Bax symphonies was replaced some time ago by new versions from Vernon Handley.  The older versions remained in the catalogue as a mid-price 5-CD box set (CHAN8906) but have now apparently been deleted even in that format.  They are available, however, in download form: the complete set in 320kbps mp3and lossless formats at £5.50 and £9.90 respectively per CD.  The recordings are more generously coupled in this version, though some remain short value; be aware that some symphonies are split across tracks.  The individual recordings also remain available under their original catalogue numbers, as here, though in mp3 format only, for £6 each. 

The Fourth is perhaps the least well-known of Bax’s symphonies.  The Penguin Guide dismisses it as “incontrovertibly the weakest of the seven”, an opinion no doubt attributable in the main to Robert Layton, who expressed much the same sentiment in his original Gramophone review of this recording; he did, however, modify that sentiment by praising this account.  So serious is the PG’s dislike of the work that the very good Naxos recording is not even listed, though their versions of all the other symphonies are.  That Naxos version (8.555343, coupled with Nympholept and the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy), retailing in CD form for around £5-£6 and available online for £4.99, is the obvious rival to compare with the Thomson version. 

The Gramophone Guide does not share the PG’s dislike of this symphony, describing it as “the most exuberantly inventive and colourful of the cycle”, an opinion with which I find it hard to disagree, especially in two such fine performances.  The construction is not as taut as one would normally expect in a symphony – more like a triptych of tone poems – but the music is very enjoyable. 

Bax described the work as an evocation of the sea at high tide in summer, a particularly apt description of the outer movements – shades of Debussy’s La Mer in the allegro Finale.  The lento moderato slow movement is an evocation of a sunny afternoon almost on a par with l’Après-midi d’un Faune.  If you like Debussy, you’ll almost certainly warm to this symphony. 

David Lloyd-Jones’s account on Naxos is a degree tauter in the first two movements – in each of these he shaves around a minute off Thomson’s timings – and honours are about even in the Finale.  As usual, however, timings tell only part of the story, since both conductors capture the magic of the music and both are well served by their orchestras.  Indeed, despite the shorter timings, Lloyd-Jones seems more prepared to bask in the more luxurious passages.  Neither the Ulster Orchestra (Chandos) nor the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos) is in the top league, but both serve their conductors and the music well.  The Ulster players, perhaps, just have the edge in the weightier passages but it is a very close call.  Heard alone, each version makes perfectly good sense. 

On this occasion my resolve to keep only one recording of each work in my over-large collection will be severely tested.  I think my ultimate choice is likely to be the Thomson – I note that RB also marginally preferred this in his otherwise welcoming appraisal of the Naxos – see review. 

The performance of Tintagel on this recording is also available on CHAN10156X, available as a CD or as a download, coupled with The Garden of Fand and other short pieces.  Whichever coupling you choose, I cannot imagine a better performance of this popular piece. 

The Naxos coupling offers two less well-known pieces.  I imagine that most listeners will prefer Tintagel, but you may well already have that – especially if you have chosen to follow my recent recommendation of its new coupling.  The Naxos couplings may not have the immediate attraction of Tintagel, but both are well worth having. 

Naxos place the two shorter works first, which I generally prefer, making it easier to skip to the start of the symphony if you wish.  The playing time of that recording is a more generous 65 minutes; at 57 minutes, the Chandos now seems short value, though there are still new CDs appearing with even shorter playing times.  Purchasing from the complete set on CHAN8906 doesn’t help, since it is there split across two CDs.  You could, of course, purchase an extra track of your choice from another Chandos download – tracks are priced separately – and create your own longer programme. 

Both recordings do the music full justice.  Though made in the early days of digital recording – the enthusiastic notes about this new phenomenon in the booklet now read rather quaintly – the Chandos still sounds very well, even in mp3 format.  Heard on good speakers, the result is hardly distinguishable from recent CDs; heard through headphones there is the merest suggestion of uneasiness at climaxes.  The Naxos recording, made in the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow in 2000, is slightly brighter and more forward. 

The pdf. booklet is not as well presented as those offered with other Chandos downloads – the scan is rather smudgy by comparison – but the notes, by Lewis Foreman, are excellent.

Brian Wilson
 


 




 


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