Ah, hubris! Even before that first bassoon solo had unwound its mysterious
tendril, ghostly doubts had set in. Was the granite first movement really
quite cogently argued? Did the glamour of the Lento really strike that deep?
Were the Russian influences in the last movement really so seamlessly absorbed?
Thankfully, by the end of the Epilogue's unique, enigmatic tranquillity I
was firmly back in the fold. This is a great symphony, no shadow of possible
or probable doubt whatever. End of special pleading.
In case this personal odyssey comes across as self-indulgence, I'll make
my point - which is, that having been only
spasmodically drawn in by the Naxos performance, I found myself horribly
tempted to blame the work. After all, David Lloyd-Jones's direction displays
classical clarity of line; orchestral focus, dynamic nuances and tempi are
generally well-judged; and though he launches into the Epilogue a mite
feverishly, even this has the side benefit of pointing up its thematic and
rhythmic growth from the main movement. The clean recording quality matches
the approach - no previous version has registered so much of Bax's orchestral
filigree, or had quite this dynamic range. Only, most of the time, the magic
touch is missing.
What's lacking? Perhaps the very detail of the recording cuts against the
warmly familiar fog of romance, the atmosphere you can almost reach out and
touch, which makes the old Barbirolli version on EMI so haunting. Under the
spotlight of modern recording, I wonder how far the Halle's frequent executive
slips would have dissipated that magic? Lloyd-Jones's reading is a model
of clean, no-nonsense structural intelligence, decidedly preferable to
Thompson's, waterlogged in the Chandos swimming-bath. But perhaps "no-nonsense"
is the problem here, at least in so far as it limits the size and scope of
Bax's emotional canvas. And while precision is a plus in so many places,
it can sometimes sound like playing safe. Lloyd-Jones is significantly slower,
for instance, more cautious than Barbirolli in that tricky first movement
Bax also needs imaginative individual playing. As the recording highlights,
much of this score has the intimacy of chamber music, and here some of the
woodwind and string players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra fall
marginally short. Individuality may not be deemed much of a virtue these
days, but although such limpid Bax is refreshing, phrasing can be an inch
too rigid (1st clarinet a glorious exception) and orchestral poetry an inch
too prosaic. Nor can the RSNO muster the weight of string tone the work ideally
needs at the big climaxes, where the violins tend to go missing under the
headstrong exuberance of the clean-winded brass. The string section is heard
to noticeably better advantage in the comparatively lightweight scoring of
the The Happy Forest, a sweetly delicate envoi to the main offering.
The Bax 1st and 2nd in the Naxos series have won golden opinions, and there's
very little wrong with this 3rd either. The firm structuring of the symphony,
and the coupling, put me in mind of Edward Downes's under-appreciated reading
on RCA with the LSO, and respect for the Naxos performance similarly grows
on closer acquaintance. Affection? Ask me in about thirty years. With a running
time of under 54 minutes another filler wouldn't have gone amiss, but at
this price nobody's going to be miffed - even though the performance of the
Symphony doesn't quite capture that elusive glint of gold.