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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 5
The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew
David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
NAXOS 8.554509 [57:51]
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This latest release in David Lloyd-Jones's impressive Bax Symphonies cycle for Naxos is an intelligent coupling of the 5th Symphony and The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew, for both were composed almost concurrently during 1931 and both were influenced by Sibelius.

In the 5th Symphony completed at Morar in March 1932, there are strong references to Sibelius in the outer movements. The work opens with a slow introduction on clarinets that is closely reminiscent of the slow movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. Although Bax attempts a genuine Sibelian growth in this movement, the Finnish composer's influence is limited, the typical Bax fingerprints are never significantly blurred. In fact Burnett James in a letter to Lewis Foreman suggested that "…much though Bax admired Sibelius, it is a red herring. I am convinced the line runs far more accurately from Mahler through Bax to Shostakovich…Bax, with his confessed Russian affiliations, looks forward to Shostakovich not back to Sibelius."

Whatever, the opening of the symphony is imaginative and very atmospheric. I was always impressed with Bryden Thomson's treatment on his rival version (Chandos CHAN 8669) with the clarinets arching over a ghostly drum beat that is slightly more forward than Lloyd-Jones allows, followed by a magically atmospheric string passage. Thomson also wins in the slower, quieter middle stretches of this movement. Here he creates a magical world that is tender, wistful and poignant yet sensual too. There is little difference between both conductors' timings of the Poco lento-Allegro con fuoco first movement: Lloyd-Jones comes in at 17:13 while Thomson delivers in 17:32. Lloyd-Jones reading is crisper and more strongly accented; and, again, as in his other Bax symphonies readings in this Naxos series, he drives the music firmly forward, he is more concerned with the form of the work. His view is harder-edged, more ferocious. Although Bax mentions no programme one can imagine the more terrible images associated with the northern myths and legends. Ernest Newman after the first performance of this symphony commented - "…it contains…harshness - even ugliness…We all thought that Bax had exorcised his spectres in the No. 4 …it would seem…he has gone back to the trouble world of Nos. 1-3..." In fact David Lloyd-Jones, in the wilder reaches of this movement, seems to be once again uncaging the beast he released in his readings of the first two Symphonies. This is apposite for more than one observer has noted the epic span, the continuing saga of Bax's Symphonies with the conflict stated in the First Symphony only being resolved in the apocalyptic Sixth.

The slow movement is another magical pictorial evocation. As Lewis Foreman relates in Bax: A Composer and His Times, "Bax referred to the sensation of suddenly seeing the sea at the summit of Slieve League, a favourite place of natural grandeur in the West of Ireland. 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 2,000 ft, the sudden sight of the Atlantic horizon tilted half-way up the sky is completely overwhelming.' It is some such experience that was being remembered in the opening to this passionate but autumnal movement." The music begins on high tremolandi strings with running harp coloration and fanfaring trumpets. Again it is Thomson who scores here. His textures are that more translucent the more audible harp decorations adding that much more colour and atmosphere. But overall Lloyd-Jones impresses most. His reading is more cogent and cohesive. In places there is a nice sense of wild elmental forces being held in check. Lloyd-Jones beautifully shapes the quieter more reflective golden autumnal passages with the central theme that speaks eloquently of nostalgia and gentle regret as it passes from woodwinds, to brass, to strings before being worked up into an impassioned climax.

The Finale is the weakest of the movements contrasting a liturgical theme with wilder material before the hymn-like theme blazes forth in glory in the epilogue. Here Thomson's slow tempi (he rambles for nearly 14 minutes while Lloyd-Jones comes in at just over 12½), do the music no real service. Granted the earlier wilder sections the are exciting enough but the liturgical theme is ponderous and the epilogue threatens to collapse under its own weight. Lloyd-Jones is much crisper, much more in control. His liturgical theme is more convincing and affecting for being that much brisker and his handling of the final reaches of the epilogue intrigues. Yes there is triumph but there is also a feeling of uncertainty too that Bax's demons are still around and that the conflict is still unresolved and waiting for the cataclysmic storms and resolution of the Sixth Symphony, that came in the following year, 1934 (although the Sixth was not premiered until 1935).

This new recording of Bax's Fifth Symphony supersedes the Chandos recording but there are great moments in Thomson's reading that I will always treasure.

The Tale The Pine-Trees Knew

Harriet Cohen remembered Bax being moved to tears at the first British performance of Sibelius's Tapiola and that 'he and Cecil Gray had decided that if Sibelius had written nothing else, this would place him among the immortals for all time.' Lewis Foreman in his book suggests that Bax's Pine-Trees 'score might well be prefaced by the oft-quoted quatrain which Sibelius himself supplied when asked by his publisher to explain the title of Tapiola:

Widespread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests,

Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;

Within them dwells the Forest's might god

And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

Bax actually wrote a programme note for the Pine-Trees in which he admitted 'that in planning the composition I was thinking of two landscapes dominated by the pine trees - Norway and the West of Scotland - thinking too of the Norse sagas and of the wild traditional legends of the Highland Celt…But this work is concerned solely with the abstract mood of these places , and the pine-trees' tale must be taken purely as a generic one. Certainly I had no specific coniferous story to relate…'

Lewis suggests that the work's opening music '…perhaps suggests…the wind sighing in the trees. Indeed, at about this time Bax wrote to Mary (Gleaves) from Scotland: "the pine trees in Rothemurchüs sighed and sighed and I longed for you to be with me."'

At this point I think it is worth quoting from my interview with David Lloyd-Jones about this Naxos Bax series (first published in my article on the Bax Symphonies published in British Music Society News, Fanfare and on Richard Adams' web site devoted to the music of the composer). 'I have done a lot of research in preparation for these recordings and have uncovered some interesting material. You will notice this particularly when you hear the later tone-poem The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew…When I was recording this fine austere work…I was using a set of parts dating from the time when Barbirolli was chief conductor of the Royal National Scottish Orchestra in the mid-1930s. This tone poem was dedicated to Barbirolli and the front desk parts still have his distinctive blue pencil bowings. The end of Pine-Trees is a bit abrupt, and in this set of parts there is an instruction to repeat the first four bars of fig 57 which I have followed. I am convinced that this is authentic. I have not been successful in locating Barbirolli's own full score, but as he was so closely associated with this work, I feel sure that he discussed the ending with Bax. Bax had, by then, heard the work in performance, probably more than once, and doubtless decided the ending could be improved by repeating these four bars.

'But more importantly, there is a passage in the recapitulation of Pine-Trees marked at fig 46 meno mosso that presents a real problem. Some people have conducted this passage in four which makes the main theme sound unbelievably slow and unnatural. I have always felt instinctively that this is wrong so I went along to the British Library to look at the manuscript. At first I was disappointed that it did not confirm my belief for it was exactly the same as the published score; but then I found the manuscript of Bax's original piano sketch for the work and sure enough he has clearly marked the passage ala breve; therefore, I feel justified in playing it in this faster way. It really brings the music to life and does not pre-empt the Maestoso that follows twelve bars later. So I suppose I have made a small contribution to Bax studies!"

So to the new recording. Certainly Lloyd-Jones seems to get under the skin of this work and realises its potential more fully than most have done. As usual he keeps a tight grip on the music and propels it forward strongly yet keeps it pliant. He vividly conjures all the imagery mentioned above, cruel elemental forces at work in lonely northern wildernesses with subtle hints of fairies and trolls. But, again I find it is Thomson on Chandos (with three other Bax tone poems on CHAN 8307) that weaves a more colourful pattern in the more tranquil section with magical horn passages.

Summarising this is another splendid addition to Naxos's evolving Bax Symphonies cycle. Strongly recommended


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

Reviews from previous months

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