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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 2 (1924-6) [37:39]
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1931-2) [40:46]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman (2); Raymond Leppard (5)
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, London, Oct 1970 (2), Feb 1971 (5). ADD
originally issued on LP as SRCS 54 (2); SRCS 58 (5), early 1970s
LYRITA SRCD.233 [78.28]

Experience Classicsonline


I had quite forgotten how very good these readings are: the digital remastering is splendid; and what a tremendous impact Fredman’s reading of Bax’s Second Symphony makes!
 
Of the seven Bax symphonies, the First, Second and Sixth are generally considered to be his finest. Commentators have made the point that the seven symphonies are like a continuing saga, containing much autobiographical material. Bax’s music reflects his emotional response to people, places and events. It is built largely on conflict, reflecting the contradictions of his own personality. Conflicts of tonality, rhythm, register and texture are all found in the music. Bax was always reluctant to attribute any programmatic detail to his symphonies but it is recognised that certain influences impacted on them. There were, for instance, his romantic affairs, principally with the concert pianist Harriet Cohen but there was quite a procession of his “fairy princesses”. Then there was the sea, evoked in all its moods, particularly around Glencolumbcille, Donegal and Morar in northwest Scotland and Celtic myths and legends. It should remembered that Bax, as Dermot O’Byrne, wrote not only poetry but stories as well, some of which are very lurid - slit throats and broken skulls are described in horrific detail.
 
Another influence was the Great War - which Bax escaped on medical grounds - in which he had lost many of his friends. Then came the Irish uprising during which he lost more. It is easy to forget that the upheaval in Ireland continued from the Easter Rising of 1916 into the 1920s with the Anglo-Irish War, the Civil War, and Partition and the Inauguration of the Irish Free State. The brutality of the executions of the ringleaders of the Rising - that heroic but misguided venture – included Bax’s friend Padraig Pearse and galvanised what had generally been, up to then, an apathetic public. One can imagine that all these tumultuous events must have affected Bax and his music. Might I suggest my article on the Bax website (hosted on Musicweb) The Bax Symphonies Revisited.
 
This conflict and wildness, even terror, is powerfully communicated as Fredman stalks the pages of the opening movement of Bax’s Second Symphony. This is a towering and shattering emotional response. It has also been suggested that the Symphony might be regarded as one vast love-song. A few pages in the first movement might confirm this idea and commentators have suggested that Bax’s seascape evocations - surely included here - could also imply a duality of meaning hinting at emotional turbulence and a “drowning in love”. But the second Andante movement is a clearer suggestion of romance; as Lewis Foreman, in his notes, suggests, “at least the music would seem to support such a view — a passionate and finally exultant outpouring”. He goes on to quote from one of Dermot O’Byrne’s better known poems: “a few poor songs of mine have crept Within the doorway of a woman’s heart…” The organ at the climax of the last movement duly marked Allegro feroce stuns.
 
Bax’s Fifth Symphony, written in 1933 and premiered in 1934, is dedicated to Sibelius whose music was attracting considerable international attention at this time. Bax’s allusion to the Finish composer’s work is to be found at the very beginning of the work, in its opening clarinet theme that corresponds closely to the start of the slow movement of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. But the allusion is transitory for as Lewis Foreman has noted, “the Fifth is one of Bax’s most personal and characteristic scores. The music is very expressive and “alternates between a profound and melancholy contemplation and a blazing triumph.” Bax’s Fifth Symphony was praised by Sibelius. As an aside, it is interesting that the friendship of Harriet Cohen was shared by both Bax and Sibelius. Again might I suggest Colin Scott-Sutherland's article The Symphonies of Arnold Bax.
 
By the time he composed his Fifth Symphony Bax had to a large extent forsaken Glencolumbcille for Morar in northwest Scotland. Considering Glencolumbcille’s geographical position in the Irish northwest county of Donegal, sandwiched between the Atlantic and the newly partitioned British Northern Ireland, one might imagine a certain political discomfort. Bax was always the immature romantic preferring to shrink from reality.
 
Leppard opens the work most atmospherically; a gloomy timpani ostinato prowling below the clarinet theme. The passion and wildness of the Second Symphony continues and one can also detect the sort of northern bleakness one associates with Sibelius: around 4:48 for a few bars, for instance. But the music that lingers in the memory of this long, epic 17:00+ movement, are some magic passages as when “a solo oboe sings over a texture comprising three muted trumpets, harp tremolandi and the strings playing sul ponticello (on the bridge), while half the violas add ghostly running quavers.” Foreman, in his book, paints an evocative scene when he talks about the 5th Symphony - “The brilliant pictorial opening of the slow movement - high tremolandi on the strings, running harp colouration and fanfaring trumpets - is breathtaking when first heard, and makes one think this is a deliberate evocation of some long-cherished grand sweep of landscape. In a book review [Celtic Twilight in Moderation], Bax referred to the sensation of suddenly seeing the sea at the summit of Slieve League, a favourite place of natural grandeur just around the corner from Glencolumbcille where the cliffs are amongst the highest in Europe: memories of Ireland lingering over in Morar? To “anyone going up from the South, the sea is hidden by the landward bulk of the mountain itself, so that when it bursts into view at a height of almost two hundred feet, the sudden sight of the Atlantic horizon tilted half-way up the sky is completely overwhelming. It is some such experience which was being remembered in the splendid and evocative opening to this passionate but autumnal movement.” This movement’s music is Bax’s typically romantic response to sea moods and around 6:00 one guesses that there might be a personal overlay.
 
A very warm welcome back to these important Bax recordings that can compare very favourably with the best - including Vernon Handley’s acclaimed Chandos set - in a now increasingly competitive field.
 
Ian Lace
 
see also review by Rob Barnett

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