Birthdays, anniversaries, centennials, sesquicentennials,
centenaries ... the classical music industry and the wider art-world
lap them up. Where would neglected composers and the music industry's
spin-doctors be without them?
This year (2003) on 8 November it will be 120
years since the birth of Arnold Bax. On 3 October 2003 fifty years
will have passed since Bax's death. The ninetieth birthday year
yielded several Lyrita LPs and Colin Scott-Sutherland's substantial
and Celtic-florilegium of a study of the composer. In 1983 Lewis
Foreman's masterly biography wove fact, description and advocacy
in perfect poise. That same birth centenary year delivered a large
number of Foreman-instigated Bax concerts on the BBC. These were
extensively recorded off-air and still circulate privately. Chandos,
supported by the Bax Trust, caught the Bax bug and discs poured
out from them; some magnificent (Symphony No. 4, Winter Legends,
Piano Quintet); others less so (Violin Sonatas 1 and 2, the first
two symphonies - claustrophobically recorded).
The period from October to November 2003 sees
Symposium's collection of the very earliest Bax 78s (including
the best Tintagel to date - the one recorded by Goossens)
and two major events from Chandos: a collection of previously
unrecorded choral-orchestral works and Vernon Handley's dream
to record the Seven Symphonies at last realised in one mid-price
box. There will also be a Chandos collection of Bax’s film music.
The earliest pathfinder for 2003’s ‘festivities’
comes in the shape of this Naxos CD. This completes David Lloyd-Jones'
cycle with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra - a sequence
that has yielded stunning recordings of the Fourth and Sixth and
not a single dud amongst the rest.
What of this latest release? It couples the last
of his symphonies with the one work that held and still holds
the catalogue and concert platform during the long and predominantly
desolate years from 1954 to 1970.
The Seventh Symphony is a work of public
splendours, valedictory magic and a quality of satiated resignation.
There are no hills of tomorrow here or if there are they smilingly
welcome the skald into quiet consummation. The urgency and emotional
charge that blasts, thunders and sings its heart out in the preceding
six symphonies has now guttered low. While the green-fire of youth
may have leached away there is still much to enjoy here. Lloyd-Jones
makes the most of the piece. He seems keen to accentuate the angular
spasms of the trumpet and convulsive little phrases. This contrasts
with the slurred and chamfered contours of the Leppard and more
so the Thomson. The opening of the symphony echoes the start of
the Sibelian Fifth: tense and subtle. Lloyd-Jones takes it with
surge and urgency and a convulsive speed. Gaudy fanfares are sterterously
punched out (12.20). There is also poetry here; for example in
the delicate balance and interplay of instruments at the end of
the first movement. The swaying kinetic power achieved in the
third movement makes an instant impression: gigantic damask drapes
moving in splendour and a colossal power at full tilt. The 'true’
Bax is revealed in the consolatory beauty of the farewell with
its birdsong and flute parabolas suggestive of the moving curve
gull-wings moving to the horizon. There is no pain in this music;
perhaps a distanced sadness but nothing of tragedy or grim sentiment.
Valedictory balm settles over the scene despite occasional shudders
The timbral splendour of Leppard's 1970s LPO
is not to be denied even as represented from analogue tape stock.
Leppard and the LPO carry off their slower speeds without waver
or hesitation. Theirs is the longest finale but the least magical.
The Thomson is the brightest sounding recording and has real immediacy
avoiding the artery-clogged audio suffocation of his Chandos versions
of symphonies 1 and 2. This virile forward-thrusting quality is
comparable with the brilliance and depth accorded to Ashkenazy
in his 1980s Decca-Sibelius symphonies.
Lloyd-Jones turns in a very good version of Tintagel.
It is a more full-blooded interpretation than Boult's on Lyrita
SRCD231. In the first movement at 5.19 listen to ripe brief petulance
of the solo violin. The spat-out trumpet barks at 6.30 are bound
to impress as also at 6.04 is the very Sibelian woodwind ostinato
over grand and nobly rolling horn calls breasting the great wash
of the orchestra at 13.00.
Tintagel has been much recorded. Boult's
1950s Decca version (long known to older collectors from an Eclipse
LP) is ruled out of court by its now deeply unlovely sound - last
heard by me on a Decca British Music Collection disc. Thomson
(Chandos c/w Symphony No. 4) is good as also is Bostock. Bostock
in fact bids fair to be the best Tintagel since the salty
and windswept Goossens version (the one soon to be heard on Symposium).
The downside is that the Munich Symphony Orchestra's sparse and
harsh violins rather cast a dampener on things. Barbirolli's Tintagel
(EMI) is excellent and wears its years with splendid disdain.
The notes are a factual and supportive complement
to the music-making. They are by Bax scholar, Graham Parlett.
The Chandos and Leppard commentaries are by Bax champion and biographer,
Lewis Foreman. These names and those of Richard Adams, Peter Pirie
and Colin Scott-Sutherland are the piles and pillars on which
Bax's reputation has been built from the 1950s onwards.
You will need to keep the books open until the
new Chandos/Handley box has appeared but this Naxos is well worth
getting. The Chandos set will be of all seven symphonies. As yet
I know of no plans to issue the Bax/Handleys separately. If the
Handley Seventh is anything like the Manchester concert performances
I heard on 3 September 2003 the Handley may well sweep the board
provided Chandos have held at bay the love of warm acoustic and
over-reverberance that marred the Thomson cycle. Lloyd Jones is
really very quick but then so is the new Handley (his surprisingly
speedy middle movement of Bax 6 in the Manchester studio worked
well but still surprised an audience nurtured on the slow pulse
lento tradition adopted by Del Mar, Groves, Downes and
The disc's finest finishing touch comes in the
form of the cover canvas which is Samuel Palmer's Tintagel
Castle, Approaching Rain from the Ashmolean.
It will not surprise me in the least if Naxos
in due course decide to issue all seven in a celebration box bringing
DLJ into direct competition with VH/Chandos. Think of it ....
if that happens there will be three boxed sets of the Bax symphonies
in the catalogue: Handley, DLJ and Thomson - unthinkable in those
days just over thirty years ago when my musical world changed
forever on hearing the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.
see also review
by Ian Lace
Bax's Symphony No. 7 - the competition:-
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson Chandos CHAN 8628
coupled with Four Songs with orchestra DDD rec. 11-12 Apr 1988
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Raymond Leppard Lyrita SRCD 232
ADD coupled with Symphony No. 1. rec. 1975
Soon to be released: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Chandos midprice box of the complete seven symphonies. rec. 2002-2003
DDD and not yet heard in any form. Chandos CHAN 10122