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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 7 (1939) [42.20]
Tintagel - tone poem (1919) [14.35]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. 21-22 Aug 2002, Royal Scottish National Concert Hall, Glasgow, DDD
NAXOS 8.557145 [56.55]

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 and upheavals.

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 Barbirolli).

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.

Rob Barnett

see also review by Ian Lace

Bax's Symphony No. 7 - the competition:-

Lloyd-Jones 14.54 12.45 14.41
Leppard 16.17 14.06 15.11
Thomson 16.54 16.23 14.09
Handley 16:39 13:32 13:38

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


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