When Lyrita first issued
these performances in the 1970s, Boult
almost had the market for Bax tone poems
cornered. Now, in 2006, these performances
have to jostle with competitors in the
Bax wrote so much excellent
music, that no two compilations of his
tone poems need to be alike. However,
at least two other discs offer alternative
performances of the "big three"
tone poems – The Garden of Fand,
Tintagel and November Woods
– to those gathered here. David Lloyd-Jones
on Naxos adds to this mighty triumvirate
the later Sibelian tone poem, The
Tale the Pine Trees Knew, on his
competing disc (Naxos 8.557599). Bryden
Thomson also stakes a claim on this
territory. His Bax symphony cycle may
be out of the catalogue – although Chandos
has made each disc available for download
in mp3 format from the Chandos website
for the price of a Naxos CD – but his
disc of the big three, coupled with
the less powerful Summer Music, remains
in circulation at mid-price (CHAN 10156X).
I should also note that I have not heard
Vernon Handley's recent disc of Bax
tone poems (CHAN 10362). That disc includes
two out of the big three, but omits
Handley's Tintagel, which is
only to be had as part of his 2003 boxed
set of Bax symphonies (CHAN 10122).
The first of the big
three is The Garden of Fand,
an evocation of the sea that dates from
Bax's early fascination with all things
Irish. Though richly scored, its fabric
is delicate. Lloyd-Jones and Boult pace
this tone poem similarly, Lloyd-Jones
taking [16:32] to Boult's [16:37]. Neither
conductor wallows in the detail of this
luscious music. Lloyd-Jones, however,
seems to find more forward momentum
and presents the score in long instrumental
lines. Boult, who gave this score its
British premiere, is more episodic in
his approach and allows the orchestration
to speak for itself. The Scottish orchestra
on Naxos is in better form than the
London Philharmonic, but Boult's ensemble
achieves a clarity of texture that makes
his argument easy to follow. His tempo
fluctuation is much more pronounced
and he is more likely to push forward,
only to draw back for Bax's big, swirling
string melodies. He is also afforded
the superior recorded sound. You could
say that Lloyd-Jones is more concerned
with flow, Boult with ebb and flow.
I prefer Lloyd-Jones, but only just.
probably Bax's most popular work, and
the entry point to his oeuvre for many
a listener. It was composed in a passionate
blur after Bax and his mistress, the
pianist Harriet Cohen, ran away to Cornwall
in 1917. His own romantic situation,
the dramatic Cornish coastline and the
majestic ruins of Tintagel castle sparked
resonances for Bax with his beloved
Wagner's Tristan und Isolde –
which of course is based on an ancient
Cornish legend and is as Celtic a love
story as you will find. This tone poem,
part sea picture, part evocation of
dimly remembered heraldry, was the intoxicating
result. As with The Garden of Fand,
Debussy's La Mer is an obvious
influence, and there are also touches
of Wagner – not least some thematic
references to Tristan. This music,
though, is unmistakably the work of
Bax and of no other composer.
Although he is not
entirely scrupulous in his observance
of tempo markings, Boult offers here
the sort of performance that I would
expect from Boulez, were he minded to
conduct British music. There is a certain
lack of emotional engagement, but the
playing Boult gets from the orchestra,
the balancing of parts and the textual
clarity he achieves are a joy to hear.
This is not a faultless performance.
The climaxes are wonderfully evocative
and rousing, but the development passages
can sound perfunctory and the orchestral
playing tends to blandness. Boult does
not ratchet up the tension in the way
that his pupil Douglas Bostock does
in his passionate account (ClassicO
CLASSCD 254 – see review),
and Lloyd-Jones is also more engaging
and urgent throughout, though his climaxes
do not hit home as powerfully as Boult's.
It is in the last of
the big three that Boult really demands
collectors' attention. November Woods
was written not long after Tintagel
was first sketched out, but its
mood is much darker. There are those
who see this tone poem as Bax's comment
on the Great War. The musical allusions
in the score pointed out by Lewis Foreman
in his excellent liner notes certainly
seem to support this view. Boult's performance
of November Woods is the most
brooding and atmospheric I have heard.
Lloyd-Jones knocks a couple of minutes
of Boult's time, but while his performance
is also excellent, his urgency comes
at the expense of mystery. Boult is
much darker and he elicits fabulous
playing from the London Philharmonic.
There is no trace of routine here, and
the brass and whooping horns are magnificent.
In the common works,
then, Lloyd-Jones scores over Boult
in the two sea pictures, but concedes
to the older conductor in November
Woods. What of the fillers?
Bax wrote three Northern
Ballads but, for reasons that are
lost on me, none has really gained much
currency. The first of them opens this
disc. The sound-world of the music is
immediately Baxian, but the orchestral
textures are leaner and the colouring
more precise than in the earlier works.
This tightly constructed work is clearly
informed by Bax's experience as a symphonist.
There is more Sibelius than Debussy
in the mix this time and the thematic
material has a pronounced Scotch snap.
This performance features stellar contributions
from the brass – trombones in particular.
In fact, the whole orchestra sounds
brilliant here and Boult shapes the
music with mastery.
in contrast, is a light snack – tapas,
if you will. Short and colourful, it
sounds like Waxman channelling Bax for
the score of a film set on the Costa
del Sol. Not a masterpiece, but here
it makes for a charming interlude between
the late Northern Ballad and
the first of the big three.
As hinted above, this
disc is wonderfully recorded, and that
alone may be reason enough to justify
purchasing this disc. Bax's orchestral
textures tend to be thick, and an over-reverberant
acoustic or unhelpful recording balance
can make even the most committed performance
sound turgid. Not so here, with every
instrumental line cleanly caught. This
does have its disadvantages, though.
The spot-lit percussion in Mediterranean
is distracting, and the clarity is unforgiving
of any minor orchestral imprecision
that might otherwise have passed unnoticed.
I have listened to
this disc repeatedly since receiving
it for review and will continue to do
so with great pleasure. It opens with
Northern Ballad No.1 and closes
with November Woods – two fantastic
Bax recordings – and affords many joys
in between, minor shortcomings notwithstanding.
If you are looking for a first disc
of Bax tone poems for your collection,
and one that includes the "big
three", I would recommend Lloyd-Jones
ahead of Boult overall, but only just.
For more seasoned Baxians, though, Boult's
November Woods is essential and
his insights in the other items well
review by Colin Clarke