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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 6 (1934) [39:32]
Irish Landscape (1913) [7:28]
Rogue’s Comedy Overture (1936) [10:54]
Overture to Adventure (1937) [9:28]
Overture: Work in Progress (1943) [8:18]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Norman Del Mar (symphony); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 18-20 July 1966 (symphony); Kingsway Hall, London, 29 April 1976 (Irish Landscape); 18 January 1994, Watford Town Hall (overtures). ADD/DDD (overtures)
LYRITA SRCD296 [75:43]

Sound Extract 1st Movement



Walton once remarked in the early 1930s, when working on his First Symphony, that he wanted to produce a work that would “knock Bax off his pedestal”, attesting to the fact that Bax the symphonist was much better known then than he is now. In fact, three of Bax’s symphonies received their premieres in the USA, demonstrating that their popularity was not limited to Britain. Yet now almost the entire Bax canon has been forgotten, excepting the tone poem, Tintagel, partly due to the general neglect of English music, but also possibly to the fact that the symphonies are quite difficult to get to grips with and require some determination and repeated listening.
 
The Sixth Symphony is a powerful and elusive work. Listen to the grinding bass at the beginning of the first movement and you will get a good idea of what’s in store. The composition was completed in Morar on the North West Coast of Scotland - a popular place for Bax to compose - and the dark, haunting and sometimes malevolent beauty of that West coast is reflected in the undulating power and chromaticism of the first and third movements in particular. Although Del Mar makes a curiously slow, laboured and rather purposeless start to the movement he gets going by the middle and ends with a really strident coda. However, it is all rather flat in comparison with the magnificent, full-blooded performances by the London Philharmonic under Thomson (CHAN 8586, recorded 1988) and the RSNO under Lloyd-Jones for Naxos (8.557144, recorded 2002).
 
The second movement begins with a series of dense, shifting chords with a Delian echo in the transience, subtlety and seamlessness of the modulations. Del Mar was one of the great Delius interpreters and he is truly at home in this movement. There follows a characteristically Baxian tune on the oboe which wistfully insinuates itself into the layers of music. Again I feel that both Lloyd-Jones and Thomson have an even greater feel for the instrumental line and the way it waxes and wanes, never truly settling down. As with all Bax’s slow movements there is an inevitable build-up to a big climax, this time punctuated by interjections in the bass and timpani. But, alas, the climax, the balance and the sound are much more impressive under Thomson and Lloyd-Jones.
 
Again, at the beginning of the third movement, Thomson captures the haunting mode better than Del Mar, who is just a little too matter-of-fact for my liking. Yet Del Mar portrays well the poignant and resigned nostalgia and the undulating crescendos and diminuendos. When Thomson recorded the 6th with the LPO, he had already recorded 4 of the symphonies, although the 4th was with the Ulster Orchestra. The LPO certainly have a greater innate feel and understanding than the NPO for the way Bax writes for the orchestra. However, Del Mar’s performance really comes alive in the third movement and the big climax towards the end is truly wonderful. It is said by some to be one of the greatest sustained climaxes in a 20th century symphony and one can see why! As in many of Bax’s symphonies the coda is restrained and elegiac, here beautifully captured by Del Mar. It is worth noting that both Lloyd-Jones and Handley are considerably quicker overall: about 35 minutes versus 39 minutes for the symphony.
 
If purchasing the complete set of Bax symphonies, one cannot beat the overall performances of Handley and the BBC Phil. However, if it is just the 6th you are after then I would unhesitatingly choose the performance by the RSNO under Lloyd-Jones on Naxos. Even for one familiar with the work it proved a revelation and persuaded me that here was yet another neglected English symphony to add to the already long and ever-burgeoning list.
 
The Lyrita disc has the benefit of including several rarely heard works. The Irish Landscape - also to be found on an old EMI recording with Jeffrey Tate - is a lush and romantic work written in 1912-13, with a heavy dose of Irish nostalgia. It is followed by the witty Rogue’s Comedy Overture and the quirky Overture to Adventure - which appears on Bostock’s version of Bax’s Sixth Symphony on the ClassicO label - both also written in Morar. The disc concludes with the Overture: Work in Progress, a jolly response to Walter Legge’s commission for five British composers to write a short work for “Symphony Concerts for War Workers”.
 
This disc would be of interest to Bax enthusiasts for these last four works alone – the Symphony, whilst good, cannot be said to be the best on the market.
 
Em Marshall

A different opinion offered by John Quinn ...

It was through this recording and Lyrita’s other Bax symphony LPs that I first came to know Bax’s rich music. As this recording enters the CD lists, there are no fewer than three complete cycles available, a state of affairs that could scarcely have been dreamt of when Lyrita did their pioneering work. However, it seems to me that, notwithstanding the comparative plethora of other choices, this Del Mar recording of the mighty Sixth can more than hold its head up high.
 
I was interested to look at the timings of this and the other available versions. Del Mar takes 39:32 and the Bryden Thomson Chandos recording runs for 39:37. However, the two more recent versions take appreciably less time. David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos) clocks in at 35:47 while the performance in Vernon Handley’s acclaimed Chandos cycle takes 35:33. Is this coincidence or does it indicate that the conductors of more recent recordings, that are now part of a performance tradition rather than pioneering issues, feel emboldened to be less expansive?
 
The first thing to say about this Del Mar account is that the sound is quite marvellous. The recording wears its years extremely lightly. Perhaps the orchestra could have been placed at a slightly greater distance from the microphones but that’s a minor matter. The recording is wonderfully detailed and both the quiet passages and the huge Baxian climaxes are thrillingly reported. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two earliest recordings here were made by noted Decca engineers of the day. The symphony was engineered by Gordon Parry and Kenneth Wilkinson was responsible for the Irish Landscape recording. Just as an aside it was these two gentlemen who engineered for Decca the 1955 Keilberth/Testament ‘Ring’ cycle with such impressive results.  
 
Del Mar has the full measure of the symphony – what a fine conductor he was! In the booklet that accompanies his Chandos cycle Vernon Handley quotes, Peter Pirie, Lyrita’s annotator for the symphony, saying of this work that “It tears up the earth by its roots.” That’s a superb phrase that adroitly conveys the often brazen energy of the piece. Del Mar’s right on top of that aspect, whether he’s imparting menace to the opening bass ostinato or fire to the allegro con fuoco that follows. Even when Bax relaxes a little for the second subject of the first movement the music is still restless. Throughout this movement Del Mar invests the music with power and dramatic bite.
 
The second movement brings us Bax, the Celtic dreamer. However, as Peter Pirie says in his note, it’s a “troubled dream”. Del Mar obtains some very sensitive, atmospheric playing. The atmosphere is carried over into the start of the third movement, which is almost as long as its two predecessors combined. This finale is ushered in by a long, unaccompanied clarinet solo, masterfully played, which is highly suggestive of the Sibelius First. In Del Mar’s hands this whole introduction is pregnant with atmosphere and tension. The scherzo, into which Bax moves seamlessly, is all dash and energy though the central trio is mainly delicate and ruminative. Eventually Bax builds to a massive climax before a long-drawn, evocative epilogue, which shows us the composer at his most haunting.
 
Several commentators have suggested that the Sixth was the work in which Bax exorcised his symphonic demons, paving the way for the happier Seventh. Certainly Norman Del Mar proves to be a most effective exorcist for his account of the whole work is gripping and convincing. Not the least of his triumphs is to obtain from the New Philharmonia playing of such bite, assurance and conviction. In 1966 this must have been very unfamiliar fare to the players. Del Mar encourages them to deliver it almost as if it were a repertoire piece.
 
The fill-ups show us different aspects of Bax and all are valuable. Irish Landscape is a passionate, romantic piece that is scored for strings and harp. Handley does it very well and the piece seems more substantial than the 7:28 running time. The three overtures represent Bax in genial mode. He himself described Rogue’s Comedy Overture as “rather rampagious” [sic] It’s an enjoyable piece with a delightful, engaging central section. In view of my comment above about the timings for the respective recordings of the symphony it’s worth noting that Handley included a performance of this selfsame overture in his set of the symphonies for Chandos. Comparing that 2003 recording with the 1994 Lyrita version, the actual playing times of Handley’s readings are 10:45 (Lyrita) and 9:55 (Chandos.) The Lyrita performance is good but the Chandos traversal is more unbuttoned and in the aforementioned central section there’s a perkiness and better pointing in the Chandos performance.
 
Handley is successful in the other two overtures as well. Work in Progress, a wartime commission by Walter Legge for ENSA, is especially extrovert. I wonder how many listeners, when it first appeared, would have caught the sardonic allusion to Deutschland über Alles? I’m not sure I would have done without Graham Parlett’s good notes.
 
This is a fine collection, in which the performance of the symphony stands out in particular. No matter which complete Bax symphony cycle you may have in your collection this superb Del Mar account is a necessary adjunct 
 
John Quinn
 
see also review by Rob Barnett

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