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Len Mullenger:

Arnold BAX
The Complete Symphonies
The London Philharmonic, Ulster Orchestra (No.4)
conducted by Bryden Thomson
Chandos CHAN 8906-10 5-disc set, issued 1990
Available £20 for a limited period
Crotchet £19.99  Amazon US $63.62 (Suggest buying from Crotchet)

For nearly a decade Chandos kept Bax's symphonic works before the record buying public, almost in splendid isolation. Nobody could have begrudged paying premium price for an integral recording which seemed unlikely to be surpassed. That lumbering, adjectival big gun 'definitive' was often wheeled out to praise Bryden Thomson's readings, and if it sometimes blew up in the faces of The Faithful ("If this is definitive, then I don't like Bax") many a love affair with these fascinating works was initiated by this cycle.

Times change, and reviewing opinion is fickle. Although most of the matchless Lyrita versions remain unavailable, the emergence of Naxos's award-winning bargains under David Lloyd-Jones has brought about a revaluation of the Thomson discs. Their critical stock has fallen. Chandos have responded sensibly by offering their set of the Symphonies at under half the list price. Indeed, with a little shopping around you can get this Bax Box for under £20, at which price this has to one of the CD bargains of the year. Whatever else needs to be said, my recommendation to the bereft is very simple - buy this box now!

Criticism of the Thomson cycle has centred on alleged over-indulgence, in performance and recorded sound, to the detriment of structural integrity. Technics first: I have lived happily with the original LP's for years, and listening to these CD transfers has certainly been a shock to the system. Played at a high level on good equipment the LP's had a wide dynamic range and lucidity of detail which more than compensated for the swimming-bath acoustic and distant balance. Of their kind, they were demonstration issues. Not so most of these CD's, where dynamic range is cramped and orchestral detail smudged. The sound is colourful, but coarse and one-dimensional after the LP's. The once-sweet brass brays stridently at climaxes, where the strings are submerged in a vague wash of sound.

Other problems? Well, the fillers are gone, though most of them are available collected on CHAN 9168. Then, the arrangement of the package itself - a 4-disc double case plus a single for the 7th Symphony - leaves something to be desired, especially when the 4th is split across two discs, thus forfeiting one of the crucial advantages of CD over LP format. On the other hand, the box and booklet are handsomely produced. Lewis Foreman's solidly informative notes on the symphonies and their context are well worth having, and there are some evocative photos and musical illustrations to ring the changes.

In general, what can newcomers expect from Thomson's performances themselves? Thomson gives us Bax the 'Brazen Romantic', and this time round I found myself excited time and again by his cycle's sensuality, depth and weight; and no less by some thrilling, virtuoso playing from the two orchestras. In the slow movements especially, Thomson conjures up a supercharged world of feeling, sometimes generalised but rarely forced. These are unashamedly big readings of big pieces, on a larger emotional canvas than Lloyd-Jones's nice versions. The opening bars of the cataclysmic 2nd Symphony are a case in point. Here Lloyd-Jones gives us the notes, but Thomson manages to suggest some strange, primeval horror lurking just beneath the surface, ready to burst forth in all its power. Structure in Bax is surely a matter of texture as well as form, and in only a few instances - notably the slow movement of the 2nd and the first of the 7th - did I sense any serious drift in musical logic, or become distracted by some less than first-class ensemble. Although he is certainly prepared to encourage individual expressiveness, allowing his players to dwell in the moment wherever Bax allows them the opportunity, it is a caricature to suggest that Thomson's readings sprawl.

Admittedly, his 7th fails to makes a likeable work add up to more than the sum of its parts. His 2nd and 3rd are not wholly successful, either, though in both cases the emotional voltage makes up for any lapses in tension, and the warm spaciousness Thomson allows to the slow movement of the 3rd is intensely moving. The 1st and 6th are strong and generally cogent readings, the 5th forceful and powerfully assured throughout. Best of all is the 4th, that misunderstood Cinderella amongst Bax symphonies, and the first of Chandos's cycle to be made. This award-winning Belfast recording with the Ulster Orchestra suffers far less than its LPO successors from the technical compromises needed to tame the All Saints Church, Tooting acoustic for CD transfer - significantly, the equally excellent 5th wasn't recorded there, but in the tighter ambience of St Jude's, London NW11.

As for the 4th Symphony itself, Thomson aligns Bax's Hebridean mosaic with other 20th Century Nature Symphonies - Sibelius 6th and Honegger 4th come to mind - as a work where the current runs deep without the need for overtly human angst. Integration in the 4th is a more subtle business than thematic analysis would allow, and Thomson's relish of Bax's imaginative orchestration makes out a compelling case for what was once - understandably - the composer's most popular symphony. This may be the finest achievement of the set, but in truth not one of these Chandos performances sells the listener short on large-scale emotion, orchestral power or sensuous musicality. Whatever its flaws, Thomson's cycle continues to offer the most consistently recommendable introduction to Bax's world, and at this price it is simply not to be missed.

Christopher Webber

Reviews from previous months

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