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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
Moeran was originally coupled on LP with the Bax Tale the Pine
Trees Knew on Concert Artist LPA2002 and then Revolution RCF003.
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
detailed notes are by Burnett James and date from 1970.
can offer the complete
Concert Artist catalogue