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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 4 (1931) [39.30]
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)

Serenade in G minor (1948) [14.27]
Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. 1965, Guildford
CONCERT ARTIST CACD-9009-2 [55.24]



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These recordings are a result of pioneering zeal. Can we remember the days when the Bax symphonies were as rare as swallows in winter? The 1950s and 1960s had Bax's music in the ante-room to oblivion. In fact for many music critics his music was already in free-fall. When Barbirolli had the gall to present the Fifth Symphony at the Cheltenham Festival in the early 1950s after the composer's death it was described by one leading critic ijn terms of a great bath of lavender water running over and gurgling down the drain. The BBC kept the flag flying though it was a very small flag in the mid-1950s with an epochally significant cycle of the symphonies taken by their house orchestras. This was then followed up with isolated broadcasts including the best performance I have ever heard of the rhythmically potent and Nordically accented Fifth (Stanford Robinson circa 1962).

When I became interested in classical music in the early 1970s I had to try very hard to hear the symphonies. The First Symphony (Del Mar) was broadcast one morning while I was at lectures. The Fifth was relayed one morning from the new Lyrita LP - I taped the broadcast and wore out the cassette. The Sixth had been issued on Lyrita in 1966. I borrowed this from the Bristol Central Library and taped that as well. I was enthralled for life. When would I hear the Second and the Seventh? I read about the Third and heard some broadcasts which left me intrigued but not captivated. I also heard the RCA LP with Edward Downes conducting the LSO - that seemed rather torpid and lack-lustre and I still feel that its fame is unaccountable when measured against the Second, Fifth and Sixth.

In the late 1960s the Fourth and the Symphonic Variations were released on the Revolution label (RCF002, but also Concert Artist LPA1097 and then, more recently, on high quality cassette transfer FED-TC-009) but these disappeared from circulation quite quickly and remainders were picked up by Farringdon Records. When I finally got to hear the Fourth (a warped and wavery sounding copy from Farringdons) I recognised its exuberant dynamic and pictorial qualities but found it less compelling than the Fifth and Sixth. The strident and thin sound did not endear either.

Enter the digital era. Chandos's first Bax LP and CD came in 1983. That year also saw the centenary of Bax's birth as well as an orchestral and chamber series on BBC the like of which we had not previously experienced. The Chandos disc was a world beater and still is. It had the Fourth Symphony in a performance by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson ... and such a performance and recording too. The disc was issued on LP, cassette and the new carrier CD. It sounds superb even now. The wind and freshness went out of the series' sails when circumstances dictated Chandos moving the orchestral cycle away from Ulster and towards the LPO. One of the great what ifs among Baxians will always be what would the Thomson cycle have been like if only he had been able to run it from Belfast. It hardly matters now. I always look on it as a lost opportunity.

As for Handley’s driven, pioneering, stereo version of Bax’s Fourth Symphony it is something very special. He had just been appointed conductor of the Guildford Orchestra and RCA had shown interest in recording Bax 4 for issue on their label. I do not know the ins and outs but the RCA side of things evaporated only to resurface for the not wholly successful Downes/LSO recording of the much fêted Third Symphony. Revolution picked up the endeavour so far as the Fourth was concerned.

The GPO were a semi-professional outfit and achieved excellent results by anyone’s standards as was later further proven by the Lyrita recording of the Finzi Intimations of Immortality - outstanding playing.

This version of the Symphony belongs in the collection of every true Baxian. It catches Handley coaxing the kindling of a Bax revival. Excitement is rife and there is a coarse and gaudy splendour to this most celebratory of works. Handley allows nothing ordinary or ill-considered. This recording is a performance in which Handley conjures a Rubens-like Bacchanalian grandeur not achieved to the same degree in the Lloyd Jones (Naxos) and Thomson (Chandos) versions. Other gentler impressions emerge like the last movement's perky flute solo at 7.56 (tr.3) and the Sheherazade filigree echo in the oboe song at 4.50 in the first movement. That particular Rimskian reference can be heard in the tripartite first movement of the Violin Concerto as can the Russian Easter Festival Overture towards the peak of the first movement of the Third Symphony. The solo trumpet's long and slightly acidic solo in the second movement (1.30) unfolds naturally. The celesta always sounded unnaturally close and nothing has changed here; still it is no worse than the balance accorded to the same instrument by Lyrita in Boult's and Itter's superbly calculated recording of November Woods. The finale bustles and exults in magnificence. The whole effect is rather like the panoramic 'Procession of Spring' Brangwyn canvas displayed in the upper storey of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight. Colours are primary, the players are in ruddy health and nature colludes in the celebrations. Surely Bax was influenced by Holst's Jupiter at 07.01 in the finale. Concert Artist's engineers have done some great work on remastering the tapes. This particular version has never sounded better. It will be intriguing to hear what Handley makes of this Symphony in his impending BBC Phil cycle for Chandos (due to be issued as a complete cycle later this year).

Originally the Moeran was coupled with the Bax Tale the Pine Trees Knew (again the GPO with Handley). That was another superb reading, highly imaginative stuff. I am sorry it was not the coupling here. However the Moeran is pleasingly laid-back, raucous and gracious in its post-war Elizabethan finery. Here is Moeran, the rutterkin, hoyda-ing and roistering amid the antique dances glancing towards Praetorius and Warlock. If occasionally the music has lost its 'fizz' we can forgive and move on to the next movement. By the way this is the shortened version. Handley recorded the complete suite with the additional two missing movements on Chandos with the Ulster Orchestra.

In the Serenade's knock-about rowdier moments a shrillness intrudes from the violins (trs. 4, 5, 7) although that edginess is completely absent in the magically gorgeous gentle melody in the second movement Air (tr. 6) which is part Josef Suk's Meditation and part RVW's Dives and Lazarus. The RVW folk-like element can also be heard in the oboe song of the fifth movement. The Prologue (tr. 5) is the only track to betray the age of the tapes now nearly forty years old. The boisterous writing sounds coarse. The Serenade was dedicated to Gustave de Maunay. While it is not the equal of the Sinfonietta still less of the Symphony it has some deeply affecting moments such as the Air.

The Moeran was originally coupled on LP with the Bax Tale the Pine Trees Knew on Concert Artist LPA2002 and then Revolution RCF003.

Were you as a Bax beginner to be seeking out a recording of the Fourth for the first time then in fairness you should go for either the Thomson/Chandos or the Naxos/Lloyd Jones. This is one for those who wish to catch some sense of the Bax revival on the cusp of harvest; history joyously in the making. Would that Handley had been let loose on the other Bax symphonies and the Moeran symphony back then.

The detailed notes are by Burnett James and date from 1970.

Rob Barnett

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