These are not
new performances, as the recording dates make clear. In
fact, they were all previously issued as couplings to various
releases in the Bax symphony cycle that these artists set
down for Naxos between 1995 and 2002. I collected those
CDs as they came out and it seemed to me at the time that
Lloyd-Jones’s Bax cycle was a fine achievement. Since then,
of course, Chandos has issued Vernon Handley’s magisterial
set of the symphonies. That is now, by some distance, the
prime recommendation for the symphonies but the considerable
merits of the Lloyd-Jones series should not be overlooked
and it’s been a pleasure to revisit these recordings of
some of Bax’s finest orchestral works.
It seems to
me that in all five scores David Lloyd-Jones displays a
fine sense of grip and no little purpose. The incidental
beauties of the many tranquil pages of these scores are
properly savoured but one never gets an impression of wallowing.
The music always seems to be moving forward. This is true
of The Tale the Pine Trees Knew, a score that
reflects Bax’s love of Scottish landscapes. Lloyd-Jones
is sensitive to the changing moods of the piece and conveys
plenty of atmosphere. I like the way that he brings out
the dark beauty of its characteristic reflective passages.
>The Happy Forest
is even more rarely heard
than The Tale the Pine Trees Knew. I’m pretty sure that it was among the many Bax works
that the late Bryden Thomson recorded for Chandos but, that
apart, I suspect that this Naxos version is the only one to have reached the catalogues
apart from the long-deleted RCA LP version by Sir Edward
Downes, which has never made it onto CD. That performance,
accompanied by a fine account of the Third Symphony was
my first encounter with Bax’s music over three decades ago.
The present Lloyd-Jones version is an excellent one. It’s
an engaging piece, fully justifying the inclusion of the
word “happy” in its title. Though Bax employs a full orchestra
for much of the time the textures are light. In the extended
slower central section there’s some lovely melodic material
and Lloyd-Jones and his players relish this to the full.
The other three
works on the disc are better known. November Woods is a very significant score, which always strikes me
as containing several passages that bring Sibelius to mind,
especially the Sibelius of Tapiola.
In this successful reading the powerful first three or four
minutes of music are strongly projected. Later, from about
4’30”, there’s an evocative, lyrical section where the tempo
is much broader. This nostalgic passage is convincingly
handled by Lloyd-Jones but it’s the many powerful pages
that make the greatest impact on the listener, or at least
on this listener.
The Garden of Fand is a more sensuous piece. In this
reading there’s an appropriate elfin lightness at the start.
Later the music describes merrymaking on Fand’s island and
the celebrations are put across very well in this performance.
The tumult as the sea overwhelms the island is most exciting
and then the music comes full circle, returning to the innocence
of the opening bars. Lloyd-Jones offers a convincing and
enjoyable account of the work.
I’ve left till
last my own favourite among these works, Tintagel. For
my money the opening pages are among the most majestic,
if not the most majestic, in all English music. The
brass fanfares emerge gradually from the depths, increase
in potency and finally burst forth into radiant splendour,
the horns ringing heroically. Lloyd-Jones does this passage
very well and then gives the long, lovely melody in which
the cor anglais joins the strings all the space it needs
but not at the expense of forward momentum. The more vigorous
central section is excitingly done and then the concluding
five minutes or so are tellingly shaped, giving the listener
a real sense of sweep and of chivalrous deeds of derring-do.
I don’t think this performance quite matches the splendid
spaciousness of Vernon Handley’s conception, nor is the
RSNO captured by the engineers with quite the same presence
that the Chandos engineers achieve for the BBC Philharmonic.
That said, this recording is convincing in its own right.
These are good,
sympathetic performances led by a conductor who seems to
me to be fully in tune with the Baxian idiom. Lloyd-Jones
obtains a committed response from the RSNO players and the
performances are captured in good sound. These works generally
show Bax writing in a more concise vein than is sometimes
the case in his symphonies and so these colourful and atmospheric
scores offer an excellent introduction to this composer’s
unique sound world. Unless you already have these performances
coupled to the recordings of the symphonies then you can
invest with confidence.