> Arnold Bax - Symphony No.4 [RB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 4 (1931) [39.28]
Nympholept (1915) [16.02]
Overture to a Picaresque Comedy (1930) [9.09]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec 24-25 Aug 2000, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
NAXOS 8.555343 [64.38]


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The Naxos cycle continues and this instalment is to be warmly greeted.

Overture to a Picaresque Comedy: a Straussian panache swoops, strides, struts and serenades its way through this euphorically pell-mell interpretation of Bax's whooping slalom run. This is not top-drawer Bax but it shows his craftsmanship in colours that are wild, garish, non-Russian, non-Nordic and voluptuous. Bax is out to emulate Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel and Aus Italien with a dash of Cockaigne's bustle and a wink and nod in the direction of Dukas and Holst's Perfect Fool. The same vein can be discerned in the first and last movements of the Violin Concerto and in Work-in-Progress; the latter recorded years ago by Lyrita Recorded Edition and never issued.

Nympholept is dedicated to Constant Lambert whose Pomona woodland ballet takes a cooler and more classical perspective. Bax's rarely performed work is a woodland idyll - a sylvan analogue to Balakirev's Tamar. The woodland scene is fleshed out with nymphs and satyrs of beguiling ways. This is a Swinburnian fantasy with links to the George Meredith and the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Bax continued the vein with works such as Spring Fire and The Happy Forest. Nothing is quite that simple but this work might well be grouped by reference to Edward Burlinghame Hill's Prelude, d'Indy's Jour d'Eté dans la Montagne, Roussel's Symphony No. 1, Ravel's Daphnis and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. The music rustles and writhes with the seething forest shadows and the dappled dazzle of summer.

Neither the overture nor Nympholept are first recordings. Bryden' Thomson's Nympholept is with the Second Symphony (and no other coupling) on a Chandos CD in which the textures were rendered far too densely and are over-warm and clouded. The Overture was recorded by RCA many years ago when the conductor was Igor Buketoff.

The Symphony No. 4 is a discursive fantasy work that stands midway in Bax's symphonic journey from terse tragic epic to elysian lyrical Armageddon to Celtic wonderland and thence into the gloriously Sibelian fastnesses of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies. It has the marine rapture of the Seventh Symphony without its valedictory placidity - some might say complacency. If he had dubbed it Sea-Phantasy we would not have blinked. Its tendency to bask is heard at zenith in the lento moderato and is prevalent in the allegro moderato which for music of its time is more moderato than allegro. The finale is the shortest of the three movements. Lloyd-Jones takes things expansively with the long fade at the end of the middle movement seeming to evoke a sun-drenched rock reef at the end of an uttermost skerry. In the finale, which also goes pretty steadily, I have never heard the little harp and flute dance at 7.34 done with such rare poignancy. There are many passages here which seem to be a gift to the brass section and especially the eight horns prescribed. The RSNO's men of brass rise fulsomely to the challenge and the great peroration to the finale goes with a confident blare and a crest-rolling roar. Comparing this with Bryden Thomson's version on Chandos with the Ulster Orchestra I have to lean marginally in favour of the Thomson with its fleet eagerness and its tendency to move forward even through the dreamy episodes. The more I listen to and write about this work the more similarities I perceive with another 'sea symphony' Hugo Alfvén's Symphony No. 4.

The Fourth was dedicated to Paul Corder (see the biographical sketch in my review of Swinsty's recording of the Preludes for piano). It was premiered by the conductor Basil Cameron with the San Francisco SO in 1932. Cameron also conducted a sturdy and savage performance of Bax's Northern Ballad No. 1 for the BBC in the 1950s. Sibelius was close to Cameron's heart and there are several Tapiola-like moments in this work.

Only numbers 6 and 7 to go now and I do hope that 6 is next in line. After that can I implore that Naxos look out Winter Legends if they have a young unknown and brilliant pianist who is superior to the challenge and is prepared to tackle something that is not called a concerto.

Rob Barnett

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