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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
The Seven Symphonies (1921-1939)

BBC Philharmonic/Vernon Handley
Recorded in: Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 4 January 2002 (Third Symphony), 5 January 2002 (Tintagel), 19 December 2002 (Fourth Symphony), 14 January 2003 (Second Symphony), 6-8 August 2003 (Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, Rogue's Comedy Overture), 5 September 2003 (First Symphony)
CHANDOS CHAN 10122 [5CDs: 74:03+77:24+73:41+69:37+60:43]

CD1 [74:03]
First Symphony (1921-22) in E flat major [31:58] (dedicated to John Ireland)
1 I Allegro moderato e feroce - Moderato espressivo - Tempo I [12:56]
2 II Lento solenne [10:34]
3 III Allegro maestoso - Allegro vivace ma non troppo presto [8:17]
Third Symphony (1928-29) [41:51] (dedicated to Sir Henry J. Wood)
4 I Lento moderato - Allegro moderato - [16:42]
5 II Lento [11:12]
6 III Moderato - Più mosso - Tempo I [13:48]
CD2 [77:24]
Second Symphony (1924-26) in E minor and C major [38:54] (dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky)
1 I Molto moderato - Allegro moderato [16:20]
2 II Andante - Più mosso - Poco largamente [12:11]
3 III Poco largamente - Allegro feroce - Meno mosso [10:13]
Fourth Symphony (1930) [38:19] (Dedicated to Paul Corder)
4 I Allegro moderato [15:35]
5 II Lento moderato - Più mosso (Allegro moderato) [12:45]
6 III Allegro - Allegro scherzando [9:50]
CD3 [73:41]
Fifth Symphony (1931-32) [37:55] (dedicated to Jean Sibelius)
1 I Poco lento - Allegro con fuoco [15:46]
2 II Poco lento - Molto tranquillo - Tempo I [10:12]
3 III Poco moderato - Allegro - Lento - Tempo I (Allegro) [11:48]
Sixth Symphony (1934-35) [35:33] (dedicated to Adrian Boult)
4 I Moderato - Allegro con fuoco [10:06]
5 II Lento, molto espressivo - Andante con moto [8:19]
6 III Introduction. Lento moderato - Poco più vivo [16:57]
CD4 [69:37]
1 Rogue's Comedy Overture (1936) [9:59] (dedicated to Julius Harrison)
premiere recording
2 Tintagel (1917-19) [15:13] (dedicated to Miss Harriet Cohen)
Seventh Symphony (1938-39) [44:02] (dedicated to the People of America)
3 I Allegro - Poco meno mosso - Tempo I [16:39]
4 II Lento - Più mosso. In Legendary Mood - Tempo I [13:32]
5 III Theme and Variations: Allegro [13:38]
CD5 [60:43]
Interview with Vernon Handley by Andrew McGregor


I am writing this review in mid-December and it is pleasing to report that this excellent boxed set is selling, according to Chandos, "extremely well". They are being coy, understandably so, for marketing reasons, but I will risk their slight displeasure by saying that sales of this set surpassed four figures very quickly. This is very significant. Who would have thought, just ten years ago, that such brilliant sales of a boxed set of Bax symphonies could be possible? I guess that it is not only the reputation of Vernon Handley as the Bax interpreter but also the success of the David Lloyd-Jones’s Naxos super budget cycle that must have encouraged so many new Bax enthusiasts to come to know this magnificent music. And it is typical of the generosity of Vernon Handley to say in his interview, that comprises CD5 of this set, that he learnt much from Lloyd-Jones’ cycle, "because Lloyd-Jones knows his Russian music and of course Bax was undoubtedly influenced by Russian music" (e.g. Glazunov and Stravinsky.) ‘Tod’ Handley also praises Bryden Thomson’s interpretation of Bax’s Fifth Symphony, as "marvellous!" But then Handley is generosity itself when it comes to music that is dear to him. Some twenty years ago he went out of his way, in a busy schedule, to record an interview, in a Guildford car park, for BBC local radio and the British Music Society. His comments on Bax, then, and particularly on the symphonies, is confirmed, and, of course, enlarged, in this spontaneous, in-depth, thought-provoking, and articulate interview.

I repeatedly returned to this interview, while studying these fine performances, and I shall highlight it in this review. In the main, I will confine myself to an overview of the set, informed by Tod’s interview, rather than concentrating on reviewing individual works’ performances because I will inevitably find myself repeating the plaudits of my fellow reviewers, and Bax experts, Richard Adams, Rob Barnett and Graham Parlett made in their reviews already posted on this site.

First of all I was interested in Handley’s statement that the pattern of Spring Fire informs the construction of the First Symphony proper. Later, Tod reminds us that the Fourth Symphony was often regarded as the weakest of the set because it was lighter in tone than the rest (but, as he declares, why shouldn’t a composer be allowed a lighter utterance). As such, there has been an opinion that Winter Legends, for piano and orchestra, composed, around the same time as the Fourth Symphony (roughly 1929-31) might have been more acceptable as the composer’s Fourth Symphony. Now, interestingly, the early Spring Fire (1913) remained unperformed during the composer’s lifetime; yet it is described thus in the Chandos recording: ‘Spring Fire Symphony’. All this leads me to suggesting that, perhaps, the time has come for a reconsideration of the numbering of Bax’s symphonies to include both Spring Fire, as Bax’s Symphony No. 1, and Winter Legends. After all, the numberings of the symphonies of Schubert, Dvořák and others’ have been reassessed, so why not those of Bax?

[Winter Legends, coupled with Saga Fragment, performed by Margaret Fingerhut (piano) with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson is available on Chandos CHAN 8484 and Spring Fire conducted by Vernon Handley is now included on Chandos Classics X10155]

The notion that Bax’s seven symphonies are a developing saga in, perhaps, two parts with a climax reached in the Epilogue of the Third Symphony, is well known (postulated by Colin Scott-Sutherland in his pioneering 1973 book, Arnold Bax). It is confirmed by Handley’s remarks and his eloquent and far-seeing readings, deeply thought-out over many years (in terms of viewing the cycle as a whole). I have never been made so aware of the symphonies’ inter-relationships. For instance, and to quote just one example, in Handley’s wonderfully atmospheric and dramatic Lento solenne slow movement of the First Symphony, way he realizes the elegiac quality of the funeral tread at about 3:40 surely points the way, through minimal metamorphosis to the ostinato tread of the Epilogue of the Third Symphony and to some sort of resolution at that the end of that Epilogue, the ‘mid-point’ of this saga. What an indelible emotional impact Handley’s reading makes of this First Symphony’s slow movement - and the whole of the Symphony for that matter; the events of the Easter Uprising in Dublin and the losses of the Great War etc. shown so clearly to have affected Bax’s writing.

Consistently, Handley has always argued that Bax’s symphonies are built on very sound classical, basically simple structures with development by metamorphosis of material stated fundamentally at the outset. In these readings, utilizing faster tempi than usual to press the music forward, the structure is significantly more apparent not only of each symphony but also the overall binding structure of all seven symphonies. Talking about his faster tempi, he makes the point that, paradoxically, in these symphonies, beauty is revealed rather than lost by pushing the music forward. Thus, it is a more natural, more rugged beauty that Handley reveals rather than the languid romantic view of some who have tended to think, erroneously, of Bax’s material as akin to that of say Rachmaninov or Richard Strauss. Although a self-confessed brazen romantic, Bax was clear-sighted enough to acknowledge the hardships, tragedies and terrors that lurked behind the beauties of the Irish and Scottish locations that so influenced him.

Intriguingly, Handley suggests that Bax, in his symphonic writing, could be realising emotions for his listeners that many had never experienced. I am reminded of the quotation from Bax’s story The Lifting of the Veil that Lewis Foreman chooses to introduce his notes for the Bryden Thomson recording of Bax’s Fourth Symphony, the story in which the composer encapsulates his momentary states of ecstatic vision and it is Handley, for me, who is the conductor who comes closest to understanding and realising these visionary experiences and emotions for us. Tod speaks too, of how Bax can reveal beauty and then almost at once show its opposite darker side. Sometimes terrible beauties indeed are revealed, for instance, in the wild and mysterious barbarity of Handley’s outer movements of the Second Symphony and the opening movement of the Third.

Another of Tod’s ideas that I find fascinating is his concept of hierarchical beauty, or grades of beauty and vision, as applied to these symphonies. This notion adds another dimension and further richness to his interpretations. There is palpable mystical and romantic beauty revealed in Tod’s reading of the slow movements of the Second and Third Symphonies with Handley again pointing the opening pages of the former clearly towards the Epilogue of the Third. Then there is his wonderfully expressive view of that Third Symphony’s celebrated Epilogue, quite the most magical I have ever heard. It is so wondrously other-worldly and faintly disturbing as surely Bax intended after hearing those strange ‘fairy-like?’ sounds in the north of Donegal. This Epilogue, as Tod perceptively says, "wins through to new moods." Another level of almost liturgical beauty is reached at the end of the Epilogue of the Sixth Symphony where some sort of resolution is reached after the turbulence and conflict of the preceding symphonies. Handley quite rightly, in my opinion, rates Bax’s Sixth as the finest of his symphonies and as one of the finest of the 20th century. His interpretation, although lacking the sheer barbarity of Lloyd-Jones’ reading of the wild climax of the Third movement, is, for me, the most satisfying on disc. Yet, like Richard Adams, I would not like to be without the wonderful Norman Del Mar recording for Lyrita. If only a re-release on CD of that recording could be persuaded. And at the end of the series, there is the serene almost resigned beauty of Bax’s leave-taking of the symphonic form that is the Epilogue of the Seventh Symphony, a brilliant reading this and one that I will treasure.

I was intrigued by Handley’s statement, at the end of his interview, that he is a Celt at heart, (although his tongue-in-cheek aside that he likes Irish jokes raises a rather disconcerting question mark over his assertion). I raise this point because I consistently hear phrases of a definite Irish turn in his readings of these symphonies, even in the later symphonies that are supposed to be associated more with Morar in northwest Scotland and with Sibelius (yes, even in the Fifth dedicated to Sibelius). But then Glencolmcille and Morar are not exactly dissimilar and the wildness of the former location "where almost every acre, every tree and rock had its own ‘fairy’ lore" – Glencolmcille Folk Museum, must surely have been carried over into his subconscious and into his music.

Tintagel receives a muscular and passionately romantic performance to equal, nay surpass any of the numerous rival recordings and it is useful to have such an exuberant reading of the less consequential, but colourful and cheeky Rogues Comedy Overture on disc

This set fully deserves the MusicWeb’s ‘Recording of the Year’ appellation, it is without doubt, my overall recording of 2003. This is the Bax symphonies cycle to which I shall turn again and again.

Ian Lace


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