When the history of recording and its role in
the renaissance or sustenance of composer’s music comes to be
written we will look back on the birth of the CD as a decisive
moment in time. We did not know it back then but when the medium
arrived in 1983 it was to prove the confident and robust carrier
for an ambitious extension of the repertoire. Who could have predicted
then that twenty years later we would have complete cycles of
the symphonies of Miaskovsky, Schmidt, Sauguet, Milhaud, Searle,
Braga-Santos, Holmboe, Simpson and Moyzes? And now we have the
third complete cycle of Bax symphonies and two of them from the
same company: Chandos.
Who else in music sounds like Bax? Although you
will find moments in Moeran, Bainton, Delius, Vaughan Williams,
Sainton and Hadley in the UK and further afield in Rachmaninov,
early Stravinsky, Rimsky, Miaskovsky
and Ivanovs where similarities arise Bax remains utterly personal
and distinctive. His personality is as immediately present as
that of Martinů, Sibelius or Janáček. With Chandos’s
mid-price set Bax can truly be said to have arrived.
Anyone who considers themselves an enthusiast of British music
must have this set.
Bax has for far too long stood in the shadow
of other symphonists. In the British stakes the long received
wisdom is that Bax’s Seven must stand aside in favour of Vaughan
Williams’ Nine. How much of this has to do with birth years or
the perceptions of the English psyche I am not sure but these
and other factors have played their role in suppressing curiosity
and ultimately enthusiasm. Vaughan Williams centenary celebrations
came before Bax’s with much deserved fanfaring in 1972. Bax had
to wait until 1983. Given what has happened it is just as well
that they did not share birth and death dates for otherwise, in
superficial media terms, Bax’s fame would have been buried deep.
So far as psyche is concerned RVW’s mysticism and extreme beauty,
despite his agnosticism, has a Protestant restraint about it.
Vaughan Williams’ music has plenty of ecstatic moments (witness
the Fifth Symphony, the great tune in The Wasps overture,
the serenading episodes in Sir John in Love, the Tallis
Fantasia, the swallow-fall vocal gliss at the end of Serenade
to Music, the peaceful violin cantilena in the Sixth
Symphony, the Dirge for Two Veterans in Dona Nobis Pacem
and many more) but this is a spiritual ecstasy rather than
sensual or erotic abandon.
Bax’s music represents the other side of the
coin. His music speaks of the expression and fusion of extremes
of emotion, fantasy and passion. Bax’s list is just as long as
Vaughan Williams’: the woodland episode from The Happy Forest;
the yearning theme from November Woods; the dew-dripping
fragile magic of Spring Fire; the thunderous power of the
Sixth Symphony as well as its ineffable and enchanted epilogue;
the up-tilted scenic fanfares of the second movement of the Fifth
Symphony; the dazzling breakers of the Fourth Symphony; the Sheherazade
theme in the first movement of the Violin Concerto; the love
song that crowns the second movement of the Second Symphony; the
trilled and curvaceous farewell of the Seventh Symphony’s finale;
the visceral excitement of The Tale the Pine Trees Knew;
the stormy restless crippled beauty of the Piano Quintet (a symphony
manqué if ever there was one); the violence and snowy beauty
of Winter Legends and the First Northern Ballad.
The list is as long as that of Vaughan Williams.
The issue is not one of superiority. It is a
matter of asserting the idiomatic and very personal contribution
that Bax has made to music. It is different from that of virtually
any other composer. It merits a place in the listening plans of
any music lover and once it has asserted its grip it will not
let relent. Bax’s significance is not simply a matter of musical
history but is to be found in the passionate eloquence of his
voice - his expressive ability to communicate with modern audiences
about states of abandon; about melody and about a beauty that
surprises by its power to shake the listener, to excite and to
move to tears. The difficulty with this sort of ‘purple’ is that
it may suggest music that is garrulous and meandering. In fact
Bax rarely sinks into ‘warbling rhapsody’ (though some miscalculated
performances have projected him in this way - notable Downes in
his 1969 LSO/RCA recording). He is no Delius, no Scriabin, no
Sorabji. I do not mean to imply that these composers ‘rhapsodise’
rather that Bax, while meditative, is also impulsive and propulsive.
He is elaborate in his orchestral textures but when well calculated
and recorded (as they are in this Handley set) these do not coagulate
but have a diaphanous glow. Bax is also good at fury and fear,
loss and consolation - hard-won, climactic music thrusting and
dynamic. Handley commented many years ago about the dangers of
playing Bax as if he were Rachmaninov or Strauss - two composers
to which his music bears a passing resemblance. The key is in
tempo and, as seasoned Baxians will hear, Handley now surprises
us from time to time.
The set starts in the best possible fashion with
a First that is extremely good. Before now Handley has spoken
of the importance if finding and keeping in touch with the correct
pulse in Bax. In this case his grip on that elusive quality hardly
slackens through change after change. Bax's opulent writing and
orchestration encourages self- indulgence as the old Downes/LSO
of the Third Symphony LP (RCA) showed. Handley both in this
symphony and in the others shows a lifetime's familiarity and
wisdom in his choices although as we shall see some may surprise
those of us who have imprinted on other readings (commercial and
radio) including those of Norman Del Mar (1, 3, 6), Goossens (2),
Handford (4), Leppard (3, 5, 7), Iain Whyte (4), Harry Newstone
(an extraordinary radio b/c of 5), Leslie Head (2, 5, 7), Robinson
(1, 5), Fredman (1-3), Sargent (3), Groves (6, 7) and Schwarz
I would not want to push this too far but there
is a strong sense in this set of Handley discovering the spikiness,
accelerations (listen to the Sacre-like speedings up in
the first movement of the Second) and jagged crags in Bax’s music
rather than the mellifluous, dreamy or curvaceous - not that he
neglects the legato but he does not allow it to stifle the active
counterbalancing elements. Handley is to Bax what Pinnock is to
Handel; rediscovering the animus and pulse of the music where
predecessors have emphasised the softer contours. Barbirolli,
Downes and Thomson (also on Chandos, remarkably enough) tended
to the languorous. Handley shares with Stanford Robinson, Del
Mar and Bostock (rather undermined by the thin-sounding Munich
orchestra in his otherwise well-conceived ClassicO version) a
sense of the excitement in Bax’s music. The other thing this set
brings out is attributable in no small part to the Chandos engineers.
Manchester’s Studio 7 has always sounded vibrant and alive as
the studio broadcasts since the 1980s have shown. Here the ambience
as captured puts across the Russian habit adopted by Bax of juxtaposing
glinting super-highs and profound depths - I have always suspected
that Alexander Sveshnikov’s RSFSR Academic Russian Choir would
have made a superb Mater Ora Filium - compare their 1960s
performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers on Melodiya (now on
the Korean label Yedang or Pipeline). There is the same rapture
in the extremes although there the sepulchral basses impress most
strongly. Bells, triangle and even anvil (try the Third Symphony’s
first movement) ring out through the texture and deeper voices
contrast for example the gut-wrenching double bass swell at the
start of the Sixth, the tuba solo in the Fifth and the organ-underpinned
sections of the Second and Fourth Symphonies (coincidentally grouped
on CD2). The Handley ‘brilliants’ are treated with brightness
and prominent eminence although as in the epilogues of the Third
and the Sixth they are allowed to glow tactfully rather than ring
out in assertive insensitivity.
This First is a market leader standing above
what now seems the mood-neutral Lloyd-Jones version. Indeed there
is a certain emotional coolness that afflicts the Naxos series.
Lloyd-Jones is never less than clear but he is at his unequivocal
best in symphonies 4, 6 (possibly modelled on the Del Mar Lyrita
recording?) and 7. The First was featured with the Sixth at the
Manchester BBCPO/Handley concert on 3 October 2003. It was given
a breath-taking performance and I suspect many had cause to reassess
it that night - I certainly did. In fact it rather put the Sixth
in the shade on that occasion. The Fourth has been lucky on CD.
Lloyd-Jones is magnificent and I would not want to take away from
his reading in praising this. Handley’s reminded me often in exegesis
of his 1960s conception of the piece from the Guildford Philharmonic.
It has that same belligerent energy yet takes time to draw breath
to take in the exuberant seascapes - in some ways like a Brangwyn
canvas. It is a ‘big’ work but without strong symphonic structural
credentials. Festive-idyllic rather like Bantock’s Pagan or
Cyprus, Alfvén’s Fourth Symphony or perhaps
Strauss’s Alpine Symphony - though with infinitely better
melodic material, it sounds extremely well in this version. This
version of the Fifth grows on you. By the time I had heard it
for the fourth time its imaginative world began to communicate
more effectively. The excitement and gaud of the two early symphonies
(more Pohjola than Baba Yaga) is magnificently put across. Lloyd-Jones
sounds curiously dispassionate - something that cannot be said
of Leppard’s version on Lyrita (LP - not reissued) or the radio
1960s broadcast by Harry Newstone. This is all rather academic
anyway as neither of these is on CD. The Thomson version is quite
good and sounds well, I think although he is so weak in many other
respects in his cycle. The Fifth belongs naturally in the same
universe as the three Northern Ballads, Winter Legends (which
I hope Handley will go onto record with John McCabe) and The Tale
the Pine Trees Knew. The Sixth is a work that reminds us that
Bax is as much of a colossus as Sibelius. If you know one of my
monuments of recorded sound and interpretation - Mravinsky’s 1965
Leningrad version of the Sibelius Seventh Symphony - you will
know what I am talking about here. Here Thomson is acceptable,
Del Mar (still chained to LP) and Lloyd-Jones visionary. Handley
and his orchestra produce an awesome performance from the thudding
volatile opening to the wrenching worlds in collision of the finale
to an epilogue that opens a fragile pristine wonderland to our
minds - as powerful as the desolation of the finale RVW’s Sixth
and Holst’s Egdon Heath but something of otherworldly enchanted
beauty. Handley has the advantage over the Del Mar of being more
naturally miked. Del Mar’s Lyrita engineers used close-up miking
to produce some magical effects which one would never hear in
the concert-hall. It remains superbly impressive but unnatural.
Handley’s version of the Seventh is all splendour: warm and forward-moving.
Perhaps it is too easy to read in non-existent things but I detect
an air of repletion and satiated finality about this symphony.
Here was a man who knew that the flame was irretrievably guttering
but who mustered the oxygen of inspiration one last time. This
is a grand canvas with no high drama instead a discursive meditation.
The Symphony makes for an emotionally eloquent paraph to his symphonic
career. Oddly I do not recall any talk of a spectral eighth. For
Bax there was no Sibelian toying with an expectant media. Would
it have been different if the musical world had been baying for
another symphony? I doubt it. Thomson, Handley and Leppard contribute
good Sevenths though only Leppard catches the crepuscular horizon-bound
fluttering to fully magical effect. Handley by the way is nowhere
near as quick as David Lloyd-Jones whose Naxos version I enjoyed.
Nevertheless Handley is completely convincing; this work rewardingly
bears a range of interpretations. The most famous of the symphonies
for reasons associated with Henry Wood’s loyalty to the work is
the Third Symphony. Parts of Handley’s reading are faster than
we are accustomed to but personally I find this a sympathetic
quality. The Third has some extremely Russian moments especially
in the first two movements and Handley drives this music forward
like Svetlanov in his Rimsky and Balakirev recordings. In the
epilogue in which Bax gazes with conscious-lost hypnotised fascination
into a Celtic paradise Handley is a mite too fast for my taste
but there is little in it and overall I rate this extremely highly.
It is almost certainly the Symphony that Handley has conducted
most often. He knows its every rush, scramble, breath and sigh.
This is not the first boxed set of all seven
Bax symphonies. That honour goes to Bryden Thomson’s Chandos box
(also still available for about the same price). It is however
the first box where the series features a single conductor and
a single orchestra. Remember that the Thomson series started auspiciously
with a superbly exuberant Fourth Symphony recorded in vintage
digital splendour with the Ulster Orchestra. Chandos then moved
to the London Philharmonic developing a torpid tendency with sound
quality to match; the recordings of symphonies 5, 6 and 7 were
better. In Handley’s case there is no trace of torpor - extremely
well judged. The rocking motion of the second movement of the
Sixth Symphony was taken startlingly quick in the Manchester Studio
7 concert. Handley’s recorded version is not quite as quick.
In addition to being a first true intégrale
this box delivers a first for Handley. He is the first conductor
to have a second version of a Bax Symphony in the catalogue.
His Revolution Records recording from 1964 of the Fourth (Guildford
Philharmonic) is newly available on Concert Artists. It is there
to compare in its still brightly lit immediacy with the grand
sound-stage of the Chandos recording from December 2002. And while
I am casting around for other ‘firsts’, I should note that the
Handley box includes the world premiere recording of the cheeky
and Bohemian flavoured Overture. This is not typical Bax but neither
is it a Straussian effusion in the sense of the Picaresque
Comedy Overture or the last movement of the Violin Concerto.
The Rogues Comedy was included in the Manchester BBCPO
studio concert which I attended on 3 October 2003. Sitting in
Studio 3 listening to this odd-ball piece I thought of Jaroslav
Hasek’s Good Soldier Schweik. The music has his irrepressible
impudence - Eulenspiegel with a Bohemian accent and an
irreverent anarchic edginess. Once I had Bohemia in my mind I
started noticing other things - a
jollity I associate with Dvořák’s Carnival overture
and the wind writing reminded me of Zdenek Fibich’s overture A
Night in Karlstein and the Third Symphony (the latter joyously
recorded on Supraphon by Karel Sejna; the former wonderfully done
for the same label by Vaclav Smetacek but not yet on CD).
With this overture on disc there remain only
the Overture to Adventure and the Work-in-Progress Overture
to come. Both were also recorded by Handley/LPO with another version
of Rogues Comedy. These still reside in Richard Itter’s
Lyrita vaults along with much else.
In the esteem of the moderately well-informed
musical public Bax remains a figure at the periphery. This set
should help redress that. Bax’s Tintagel has a tenacious
hold on the public consciousness. Beyond its intrinsic romantic
attractions it has the virtue of holding the door open for the
discovery of other Bax works. It keeps his name in the public
consciousness. So many conductors have championed it: Downes,
Handley, Boult, Thomson, Pritchard, Goossens, Bostock, Leppard,
Atherton, Ajmone-Marsan, Schwarz, Gibson, Davis, Van Steen, Robinson,
Lawrence, Handford, Mackerras, Willcocks and Tausky. Handley takes
it as broadly and richly as has become the norm in recent years
- circa 15 minutes. This is nothing like the 11.59 taken by Eugene
Goossens in his 1928 recording. There is still room for the visceral
excitement and imagination of the Goossens pacing which still
sounds extremely effective even across the void of 75 years. The
Goossens recording together with other early Bax recordings is
on Symposium 1336 (soon to be reviewed here).
Received wisdom suggests that you might progress
from Tintagel to the Third Symphony which has been lauded
since its sustained succès d’estime with Wood and
Barbirolli. In fact it is an elusive piece which might initially
disappoint and put off the lieges loyal to Tintagel. Better
yet listeners should try The Garden of Fand (superb version
by Barbirolli on Dutton) or Boult’s thrawn and passionate November
Woods - a reference recording if ever there was one (Lyrita
SRCD231 unfortunately linked to his etiolated Fand, Mediterranean
and Tintagel although with a superbly braw Northern
Ballad No. 1) for an experience closer to Tintagel.
One needs to launch out into symphonic
waters. If you want trumpeting exuberance and celebration in your
symphony then go for the Fourth. At its boisterous best it has
the feel of Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Kodály’s
Peacock Variations. If you have Sibelian inclinations,
and I would not want to over-stress the similarities (although
they are there), then try the icy splendours and gaudy spectacle
of the dynamic Fifth Symphony. The First Symphony has a decidedly
Russian accent; not exclusively but certainly assertive in the
mix. This is Bax still synthesising influences but the First is
certainly a work that is fully satisfying if without the masterly
transparency of orchestration found in the Third and Sixth Symphonies.
The high romance of Tintagel is most closely approximated
in the Second Symphony especially in the central movement which
has a gift of a melody: a love song of indelibly memorable attainment.
You can reach for parallels in the best of Tchaikovsky (say in
the Fourth Symphony), in Rimsky’s Antar (every bit as good
as Sheherazade) and in Stravinsky’s Firebird. This
is flanked by movements that gloatingly hold open the door to
some awesomely majestic Celtic Gehenna like a Kay Nielsen or Virgil
Finlay illustration made flesh and blood, sea and cliff, gorge
and tower. Again reach for parallels in the direction of Tchaikovsky
- say Francesca da Rimini. Speaking of which, what a performance
Mravinsky or Markevitch would have given of Bax’s Second! The
Handley version of the Second Symphony is outstanding - though
the work has been fortunate in some previous interpreters including
Goossens (in the BBC studio in the 1950s) and Fredman on Lyrita
(awaiting reissue with no real propsect of it ever happening).
This set is clearly intended as a ‘statement’.
It is presented modestly but tastefully. It does not shout at
you but the font and colour and texture bespeak a Baxian quality.
The ‘look and feel’ is basic but stylish with all five discs presented
in a card box or wallet in sleeves following the pattern set by
Brilliant Classics (e.g. for the Barshai Shostakovich set). The
box is in green leather-effect with gold lettering using the font
adopted for Bax's Chandos series from the 1980s onwards. Each
CD is housed in a stiff card slip-case with just the disc number
(in rather small type) on the sleeve rather than any indication
of contents. These are listed in detail in the booklet and in
outline on the rear of the box. Each sleeve has session photos
of Handley and the orchestra. The booklet runs to 56 pages and
is further packed with photos of the recording sessions. The booklet
comprises a 12 page interview between Handley and Foreman. It
is not the same 60+ minute interview as that recorded on CD5 between
Handley and Andrew MacGregor. The CDs themselves are plainly presented.
The layout is economical with two symphonies per CD except for
the Seventh which keeps house with Tintagel and the overture.
To sum up then: superb sound and presentation.
Good price; this could easily have been marketed at full price!
Superb readings throughout with the pinnacles being symphonies
1, 2, 4, 5 and 7. Please do not read this as criticism of 3 and
6. It is a matter of shading in relation to other recordings some
of which are unavailable anyway.
Hearing the symphonies is an adventure - a journey
of the emotions in which you will constantly be surprised and
delighted, impressed and, most importantly, moved. Bax shows himself
to be a poet of the emotions who does not shy from violence, whole-hearted
celebration, ecstatic absorption in beauty, sorrow and drama.
You could not have a better starting place and destination than
this epochal set.
See also review by Richard Adams
Arnold Bax Web-site