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

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
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]

 

When Vernon Handley recorded Bax’s Fourth Symphony with the Guildford Philharmonic in 1964 it was the first of his symphonies to have been recorded since Barbirolli’s pioneering version of the Third two decades earlier. Three years later Richard Itter issued Norman Del Mar’s fine recording of the Sixth on his Lyrita label, and then came the First and Second under Myer Fredman and the Fifth and Seventh under Raymond Leppard. Edward Downes’s RCA recording of No.3 had appeared in 1969, and then came Fredman’s ABC LP of the same symphony, though that was issued in Australia and never became generally available elsewhere. The advent of CD in 1983 certainly seems to have encouraged exploration of hitherto neglected repertoire, and it was in that same year that the first in Bryden Thomson’s cycle of the symphonies was issued by Chandos with the Ulster Orchestra; in fact his recording of No.4 and Tintagel was only the second CD of Bax’s works ever to be issued (the first being his Chandos collection of four tone-poems); he subsequently recorded the rest with the LPO. David Lloyd-Jones’s symphonic cycle began in 1997 with No.1 and was concluded in October 2003 with No.7. His no-nonsense approach to Bax was a valuable antidote to some of the more indulgent performances of other conductors over the years, and the cheap price of the Naxos recordings encouraged many people to take a chance with a composer who may have been unfamiliar to them.

Nearly forty years after his Guildford recording of No.4, Vernon Handley was finally asked to record a complete cycle, something that Bax enthusiasts had been hoping for over the intervening years. It was originally intended that he should record only the Third for a free CD to be given away with an issue of the BBC Music Magazine and we have Brian Pidgeon, the BBC Philharmonic’s General Manager, to thank for his percipience in realizing that here was something special and that all the symphonies should be recorded to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death in October 1953.

Handley’s approach to the symphonies has changed over the years. As he says in the interview on the bonus disc that comes with this set, he takes the slow movements at a faster tempo than before, and indeed, except in the case of the Sixth Symphony, he takes generally faster tempi than other conductors in the outer movements as well. I certainly like the quick speed adopted by Handley for the opening movement of the First Symphony (1921-22). There is a sense of urgency not present in Thomson’s recording and, as in Lloyd-Jones’s version, he emphasizes the barbaric quality of the music (the tenor drum comes across ferociously here). Handley maintains a fast tempo for the development section, where other conductors exaggerate the slight modifications of tempo with which Bax liberally sprinkles the score. The speed in the closing page and a half is again faster than usual, but the menacing quality of the music comes across very well indeed.

The clarity of these new recordings is especially demonstrated at the start of the powerful slow movement. The side drum (with snares slack ‘as at a military funeral’, as Bax mentions in a programme note) and the two harps, playing semiquaver arpeggios, are clearly, but not obtrusively, audible. The build up to the first big climax is powerful and the fanfares clearer than in other recordings. Bax felt that this slow movement was one of his best, and nobody hearing this searing performance would be likely to contradict him. The opening of the finale, with its brassy, very Russian sound, strikes me as being at just the right tempo (some performances are too laboured here), and it leads into the Allegro vivace. Bax adds the rider ‘ma non troppo presto’, and again Handley has hit just the right tempo, I feel. At the moment on page 97 of the score when the first subject from the opening movement reappears, it can often sound as if the music is being pulled back, but Handley makes sure that the momentum is maintained despite the slower tempo indicated. The brazen Marcia trionfale, with which the symphony concludes, is played for all its worth, and the final page brings this tremendous score to a shattering conclusion with its blaring brass and tolling bells.

The opening pages of the Second Symphony (1924-5) are well played on all its recordings, but where Handley scores is in the main Allegro moderato. This again is faster than in previous versions, with playing that is very rhythmic and precise. In contrast, Handley adopts a slower tempo than Thomson and Lloyd-Jones for the second-subject group, which allows the music to breathe, though I think the quicker tempos favoured by other conductors have their merits too. Interesting to note that at the start of the slow movement, the harpist arpeggiates the repeated, Holstian chords where other performers play them unspread. The beautiful melody introduced by the violins on the third page is well articulated, and the shattering climax over an organ pedal is very powerful indeed. The final page, with its tremolando strings, horns chords and harp arpeggios (the latter clearer than usual) is spine-tingling.

In the finale, Handley again scores by the sheer attack in the Allegro feroce, which he takes at a cracking pace, faster than in any previous recording. It is this sense of ‘living dangerously’ that I especially like about Handley’s performances, in contrast to those of Bryden Thomson, who had a tendency to hold back rather than let rip. (I remember him saying that music should only be played at a speed at which the fastest notes could be articulated clearly.) The great climax, with organ at full throttle (to borrow Michael Oliver’s phrase) comes across powerfully here, though I miss those menacing descending phrases on the trombones just after figure 17, which David Lloyd-Jones turns into an almost snarling sound; here they are less prominent. But the epilogue is appropriately bleak, and for the first time in any recording I could clearly hear the strange dominant thirteenth on which the work ends (F and A on cellos, C and E on bassoons, with C below on basses): in other recordings one or other of the tone colours predominates, but here you can distinguish them. (Incidentally, Bax’s short score for this work shows that he originally intended to end it with a triumphal march, as in the First Symphony.)

I confess that I have not yet become accustomed to the tempo that Handley adopts for the opening of the Third Symphony (1928-9), which is faster than in any other performance I have ever heard, except the one conducted by Sir Henry Wood that can be found on Symposium CD 1150. In Barbirolli’s recording it sounds as if the woodwind are improvising their meandering lines; here it sounds as if everyone is in a hurry to get to the Allegro moderato. I am also puzzled why the harp chords on page 2 of the score are, as in Lloyd-Jones’s recording, played without being spread; and there is a slight discolouration of the first note of the strings’ entry with the liturgical theme at the fifth bar after figure 5. But thereafter Handley barely puts a foot wrong. The Allegro feroce, though not the fastest on record, certainly propels the music forward with a sense of purpose, and the famous passage for five solo violins on p.30 come across very well indeed. Handley refuses to linger over the Lento moderato, which begins with the strings, but it certainly does not sound at all rushed. Good horn solo a few pages later, and that dramatic moment at fig.38, where the timpani play the first three notes of the ‘motto’ theme, would have pleased Wood, who used to tell his timpanist to make them sound as if it were a horse kicking at a stable door! I have certainly never heard the harp’s ‘glissando in four quavers’ just before fig.39 sound so clear. The climactic anvil stroke (which appears in the manuscript score in Wood’s handwriting, Bax originally having written a cymbal clash) is by far the best I have ever heard: it often sounds as if someone in the percussion section has accidentally dropped a small metallic object on the floor; here it comes across as a resounding thwack. The rest of the movement is brilliantly played. If I were a conductor, I might have taken the Allegro coda a little faster (as David Lloyd-Jones does) but Handley certainly brings this vast movement to an exciting close.

The slow movement is all that it should be, with very good solos from the horn and trumpet on the first two pages, a sense of rapt concentration over the next few pages, a powerful climax towards the end, and a suitably desolate ending with sensitive playing from the principal bassoonist, Bax enthusiast David Chatwin, who, as a student thirty-two years earlier, conducted the first performance of the tone-poem, Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan, at the RCM, with Ken Russell in the audience; this was around the time that Russell was working on his film The Devils and was becoming interested in Bax’s music; he later sponsored the Lyrita recordings of the First and Second Symphonies.

The third movement gets off to a cracking start. On a first hearing I wished that the tenor drum were a little more prominent, but it is after all marked ‘ad lib’ in the score and with the dynamic p against the mf of the clarinets and violas, so it is obvious that Bax wanted it to be subsidiary to the tune. After the great fanfare on p.91, there is a più mosso, with the additional indication ‘feroce’, and here I felt that Handley was holding back a little; or maybe it was because I am used to conductors taking this section at a faster tempo. The climax before the epilogue is very well managed, and the epilogue itself sensitively played but without being over-expressive. Handley tells us in his interview that he finds Barbirolli’s performance ‘too beautiful’ here. This is not a problem that I have ever encountered with it, but nonetheless Handley’s more straightforward account lacks nothing in poise and a deep a sense of tranquillity. Perhaps the horn solo on the last page begins a little too loudly, but the final bars are as moving as they should be.

When I first heard the opening of the Fourth Symphony(1931) from David Lloyd-Jones I was bowled over by its sense of forward momentum and a feeling that powerful forces were being unleashed. Handley’s opening is quite similar (a trifle slower) but it has to be said that the greater depth of the recording makes it sound even more bracing. The third trombone’s entry at bar 4 registers very clearly here, as do the organ chords on p.2. Handley succeeds very well indeed in holding the long first movement together, and the final pages are most exhilarating, with Handley making less than other conductors of the largamente. I have always found the second movement of No.4 the least appealing of Bax’s symphonic slow movements, but in this new recording I was caught up in his unique sound-world from the very first bars. Fine trumpet solo near the start, and as in his earlier recording (and like Thomson but not Lloyd-Jones) Handley gets the clarinet just after fig.23 to play the second written E natural (sounding C sharp) instead of the E flat that is written in the published score (and also in the manuscript). I greatly enjoyed the third movement, and especially the Allegro scherzando at fig.22, which Handley takes faster and with a lighter touch than previous conductors. The final pages are again quicker than we usually hear, but that is in keeping with the rest of his interpretation.

Handley’s liking for fast speeds is again in evidence at the start of the Fifth Symphony (1932), but here (unlike the Third) I feel that this is all to the good. The playing of the introduction and the build up to the Allegro con fuoco are tremendously exciting, though around the third bar before fig.6 there is an ensemble problem (the only one I’ve noticed in the whole boxed set), with the second violins on the right not quite together with the horns. No matter; it has gone as soon as you notice it. I love the way Handley keeps this music moving forward; very important in this movement, I feel, where there are so many rapid changes of mood. The sheer beauty of the playing around figs.24 and 25 is quite extraordinary.

The opening of the slow movement is played at a steady pace, and Bax’s triadic brass fanfares, set against tremolando strings, have never sounded so majestic. The wonderful, resonant sound of the BBC Philharmonic’s lower strings that follow comes across marvellously in this recording, as does the brazen climax on p.79, with the side drum for once playing together with the brass (in most performances it is a quaver behind here owing to a mistake in the printed parts). The stark flourish for brass and timpani on p.89 following the tuba solo is also much clearer and emphatic than in previous recordings, and, unlike other conductors, Handley is meticulous in getting the clarinet and trumpet at fig.16 to articulate their semiquavers, so that they sound distinct from the bassoons’ quavers.

After the liturgical theme in fourths on the first page of the finale, Handley sets a furious pace for the ensuing, highly rhythmic Allegro, and the orchestra responds with playing of tremendous panache and immaculate precision. Following the darker slow section in the middle and the return to the fast music, Handley builds up a tremendous climax leading into the Epilogue, which starts serenely with an ostinato in the bass and the liturgical theme on clarinets and strings, and here Handley’s preference for having the second violins on the right pays off, with their counter-melody much clearer than in previous recordings. The build-up to the grandiose final pages is very well managed, and the ending, with swirling woodwind and strings against the brass chorale, sounds tremendous. This is undoubtedly the best performance of Bax’s Fifth Symphony I have ever heard.

In his interview, Handley confesses that the Sixth Symphony (1934-5) is his favourite and points out that many people regard it as his masterpiece. The opening pages, with that grinding ostinato in the bass and those stark wind chords above them, come across very well. Like Del Mar and Lloyd-Jones, Handley follows the printed score in placing the third cymbal clash in the final bar before the Allegro con fuoco and correcting the second clash by moving it to the preceding bar (the printed score is obviously wrong here). But Bax’s manuscript confirms that he actually wrote the third clash on the penultimate bar, and this is what Bryden Thomson plays in his recording. However, I remember Christopher Whelen telling me that when he was rehearsing the work in the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth, with Bax himself by his side, the composer agreed that the third clash should indeed be in the bar before the Allegro. It is difficult to decide which is the better: Bax’s original thought (as played by Thomson) or his afterthought (or perhaps an incorrect recollection of what he had actually written in the manuscript). I confess that I found the Allegro con fuoco itself just a little too earthbound; Bax has written ‘non pesante’ against the main theme, but it sounds too heavy and lacking in momentum. The rest of the movement, however, is very well played, though I think Lloyd-Jones has a more exciting conclusion.

The slow movement, in contrast, is played faster than in previous recordings, and I found that I soon became used to the tempo. The slow march starting on p.69, which Lewis Foreman has likened to a ‘procession of ghosts’, certainly has an unearthly feel to it. I note, without any particular feelings on the matter, that Handley instructs the tambourine player to continue his repetitions beyond what Bax indicated in the manuscript or what is misprinted in the score. There always seems to have been confusion about this point, and I believe that the original printed tambourine part had nothing at all in this passage. It may be recalled that Lloyd-Jones, in a note to his Naxos recording, mentioned that he had omitted the tambourine part here altogether, though in fact it can be heard on disc (a different take having presumably been used without his knowledge). Handley also omitted the tambourine part in his performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic a few years ago.

John Bradbury, another of the BBC Philharmonic’s Bax enthusiasts, plays the opening clarinet solo of the third movement to perfection, and the rest of the Introduction is also beautifully managed, especially the strings at fig.3. The transition to the Scherzo is also very well done, and the opening bassoon solo is clearer than in the Naxos recording. Handley’s tempo for the Scherzo is slower than Lloyd-Jones’s but lacks nothing in rhythmic drive. When it comes to the slower Trio, I have always felt that Del Mar manages to choose just the right tempo here. The other recordings, including this new one, are a little lethargic for my taste; but this is all a matter of opinion, and other listeners may prefer the slow speed adopted here. Handley does not have the sheer excitement that I find in Lloyd-Jones’s working up to the big climax, but the climax itself, with the liturgical theme blared out by the trumpets, is better, with the upper notes of the liturgical theme clearer than on the Naxos recording. That horrendously difficult solo for trumpet at fig.37, where the poor player is expected to descend from a top C to the very bottom of his compass in a few bars playing piano and legato, is well managed (on the Naxos CD the player has to stop for breath). The Epilogue, with its horn solo and divided strings, is beautifully played, and the tenor drum’s sinister tapping on p.125 of the score is perfectly articulated.

Vernon Handley crowns his cycle with what is, on balance, the best performance of the Seventh Symphony (1938-9) that I have heard - and there have been some very fine performances over the years, from Downes’s two broadcasts in the 1980s to Thomson’s Chandos recording and David Lloyd-Jones’s for Naxos. The opening is fairly steady but the clarity of the sound enables the listener to hear details that are not apparent in other recordings, such as the harp’s rapidly repeated notes starting at fig.1 and those delightful downward arpeggios on p.84, which go for nothing in other recordings. I also especially like the timpani’s dramatic contributions at fig.26 and just after.

Somebody (I forget who) once remarked that the slow movement of No.7 was a dud. Well, these things are a matter of opinion, but there are certainly no real duds in any of the performances of it that have been recorded. I always felt that Thomson, in particular, was at his best here, but Handley’s performance is in some respects even better. The final bars are especially well done. The finale begins with what Bax described as ‘a real 18FORTY Romantic wallow’, and this is precisely what he gets from Handley. Unlike other conductors, who feel that the tempo of the ensuing Theme and Variations should relate to that of the introduction (the new crotchet equalling the previous minim), Handley begins it at a faster speed. For the Epilogue Handley instructed the players not to use rubato, and the tempo for this reason sounds a trifle faster than in, say, Thomson’s recording; but the solo playing is wonderful and the ending is as finely managed as I have ever heard.

The symphonies in this cycle are coupled two to a CD as follows: 1 and 3, 2 and 4, and 5 and 6. No.7 shares a disc with the first issued performance of the overture Rogue’s Comedy (1936) and Bax’s most famous work, Tintagel (1917-19). In 1994 Handley made a recording for Lyrita with the LPO of three of Bax’s then unrecorded overtures: Rogue’s Comedy, Overture to Adventure and Work in Progress. These were intended as couplings for a proposed CD reissue of Del Mar’s performance of No.6. But, alas!, as we all know, nothing has been issued by Richard Itter for several years, and these fine performances have never been released. The Overture to Adventure was recorded again in 1998, this time by the Munich Symphony Orchestra under Douglas Bostock for the Classico label, and now at last Handley gives us a new recording of Rogue’s Comedy. Unlike its close cousin, the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy (1930), this score was never published and has probably received no more than three performances since the world première under Hamilton Harty in 1936. It shows Bax at his most unbuttoned, and the BBC Philharmonic play it with tremendous gusto.

The overture is followed by a magnificent performance of Tintagel. Handley has conducted this work innumerable times over the years (and quite a few times in 2003 alone) and he really knows the score inside out. This shows in the exemplary pacing throughout, the outer sections being broader than in many other recordings (of which there have been no fewer than twelve all told). The return of the Big Tune on the horns on p.46 of the score is a thrilling moment. I hesitate to say that this is definitely the best performance I have ever heard (Bax himself thought that Tintagel was nearly always well played on account of its ‘broad lines’), but it is probably the performance that I shall turn to most often. The fifth disc in this set is taken up with an hour-long interview with Vernon Handley by Andrew McGregor, and Lewis Foreman’s notes also include another interview with the conductor.

In summing up this splendid boxed set, I should say that the performances are all outstanding and that Vernon Handley’s interpretations are, in most cases, the best yet recorded. It is possible to point to specific passages and say that the timpani in such-and-such a recording are crisper there, or that those few bars sound more convincing under such-and-such a conductor (and I think that, taken as a whole, David Lloyd-Jones’s performances offer the greatest challenge to Handley). But these minor quibbles pale into insignificance compared with the overall achievement. The quality of the recordings really is superb, and Stephen Rinker is to be congratulated on having provided such a lifelike sound with great depth, clarity and warmth; and how good it is to be able to hear Bax’s intricate harp parts for a change (a drawback of the Naxos set). One of his colleagues jokingly remarked at a recording session that the symphonies would be coming out in ‘Glorious Rinker Sound’ - and he was absolutely right. Congratulations also to producer Mike George, who has done a marvellous job in fitting all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, and to Brian Pidgeon, who was instrumental in getting this project off the ground in the first place. Grateful thanks to Chandos too for having the courage to issue it when they already had another cycle in their catalogue. But the final vote of thanks must go to the incomparable Vernon Handley. His Bax cycle has been a long time in coming, but it has proved well worth the wait.

Graham Parlett

 


see also review by Rob Barnett
Richard Adams

The Arnold bax Web-site



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