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Download: Chandos

Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No.1 in E flat (1921-2) [36:55]
Symphony No.6 (1934-5) [39:37]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London, 22-23 October 1987.  DDD.
Experience Classicsonline

This is currently the only way to obtain Bryden Thomson’s version of Bax’s First Symphony, as the first disc of the complete symphonies.  It is available as an mp3 download for £5.50 or as a lossless download in wma, wav and aiff formats (CHAN8906W) for £9.90.  The original fillers which accompanied the symphony are available in different couplings among Chandos’s mid-price reissues of Bax’s orchestral music.  This is a generous coupling, but the problem is that many potential purchasers will already have Thomson’s version of the Sixth Symphony, also available as a download with its original coupling, the Festival Overture, on CHAN8586.  You could, in that case, purchase just the three separate movements of the First Symphony on its own for £4.50 (mp3) or £8.10 (lossless).

Having reviewed the other Bryden Thomson Bax symphonies as mp3 downloads, I tried the lossless (wma) version of this recording.  I had no complaints about any of them in mp3 versions, but the wma download does bring noticeable improvement.  I burned the First Symphony onto CDR along with a Proms performance of Bax’s unacknowledged symphony, Spring Fire, which has been sitting on my hard drive recorder for a long time, awaiting a suitable partner.  That Proms broadcast sounds pretty good – I can’t now remember whether it was from my DAB or FM tuner – but the opening of the Chandos puts it completely to shame as a recording. 

The First Symphony is not well known, mainly because of its episodic nature.  Bryden Thomson was never one to resist savouring the beauties of Bax’s music to the full; in the case of this symphony more than any other, therefore, his reading doesn’t fully hang together – his overall time of 36:55 is a good five minutes slower than any other version in the catalogue.  It’s good – very good – in parts but, with memories of a Radio 3 broadcast of Vernon Handley’s later Chandos recording in mind, I found this the least convincing of the cycle. 

That Handley version is available on CD only as part of a box set (CHAN10122), but the separate discs are available as downloads in mp3 and lossless form for £8.40 and £10.00 respectively.  His coupling of the First and Third Symphonies offers good value with a playing time of 74:03 – or, if you already have a version of the Third with which you are happy, the First may be purchased separately (£5.60 or £7.20, which makes the lossless version much cheaper than the equivalent version of the Thomson recording). 

David Lloyd-Jones, too, offers a much brisker and tighter account (Naxos 8.553525, CD or download from classicsonline), though one of his couplings, The Garden of Fand, is surely in the collection of any serious Bax lover – you may already have the recommendable Bryden Thomson recording, now reissued on Chandos’s mid-price series (CHAN10156X, CD or download from Chandos’s own theclassicalshop or from classicsonline – see review).

The best value of all is offered by Lyrita, whose very creditable LPO/Myer Fredman version of the First is coupled with Raymond Leppard’s Seventh (SRCD232 – see review).  This recording is also available as a download from emusic: just six tracks from your monthly subscription. 

I have said that there are some (very) good things about the Thomson version.  Not least of them is the powerful opening to the first movement: Bax marks it feroce and it’s certainly that in this performance.  The slow movement, too, is faithful to the solenne marking and Thomson captures the sense of mystery which has led to this movement being compared with Holst.  The finale opens with a fine account of the allegro maestoso.  Where Thomson is least convincing is in the change of gear into the tempo di marcia trionfale in the finale – the coda to any Bax symphony is always difficult to bring off convincingly without creating a sense of disjunction.  Listening once through without trying to score points brought less of a sense of disjunction than when I listened critically – perhaps I was just looking to find fault at that stage – but, as I recall, Vernon Handley carries the transition more convincingly. 

The Sixth Symphony is an attractive work, though it would be idle to pretend that it is likely to make the same impact on the listener as Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, especially the Fourth, which is almost exactly contemporary with the Bax Sixth.  The Bax is more immediately approachable than the VW, which is rather hard to take on first hearing, but the VW is ultimately by far the more memorable. 

As so often, however, we must not let the best blind us to the values of the very good.  Bax was at his creative peak, with the ideas coming thick and fast – and hot – and if the work is less coherent than the VW, that is mainly due to the intensity of Bax’s composition.  The storm clouds are certainly brewing in the VW, but we sometimes need the bluer, though not trouble-free, skies of the Bax. 

The obvious rival Sixth in the price-range of the Chandos downloads, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos (8.557144 – around £5-6 on CD or £4.99 as a download from classicsonline), is a thoroughly recommendable account and well recorded, with two valuable fillers, Into the Twilight and Summer Music.  Anyone who purchases the Naxos is likely to be happy with the product – as I have been for some years now.  IL made it Bargain of the Month (see review) and RB made it his top recommendation (see review). 

As usual, Lloyd-Jones comes in noticeably faster in all three movements and his time overall is four minutes shorter than Thomson.  The obvious inference is that Thomson must be too slow, especially when the newer Chandos recording under Vernon Handley agrees with the Naxos – he takes slightly longer than either of his rivals for the first movement but undercuts both in the second and equals Lloyd-Jones in the last movement.  Though available on CD only in the box set, the Handley is available separately to download – an excellent bargain, coupled with the Fifth Symphony, for £8.40 (mp3) or £10 (lossless). 

Yet, as I have so often said, tempo alone is not what matters.  Play a short passage from Thomson’s recording alongside Lloyd-Jones or Handley in the Building a Library manner and you will probably prefer the slightly sharper interpretations of the new recordings.  Play the Thomson version of the Sixth Symphony in its entirety and, unless you go for the faster interpretation automatically, you will find his account equally recommendable.

Yes, Thomson makes both symphonies here sound episodic – and Bax’s symphonies are undeniably less tightly structured than those of, say, Vaughan Williams, who understandably ousted him in popularity – but by lingering along the road he allows us more time to savour the beauties of the landscape.  There wasn’t a single moment when I wished he would get a move on – and he isn’t the slowest interpreter of the Sixth: Norman del Mar on Lyrita takes even longer than Thomson in the first two movements and only slightly undercuts him in the third.

Whichever version you choose, your overview of the Bax symphonies will be incomplete without the First.  Paradoxically, I came to it last, having already got to know Nos. 2-6 and a nodding acquaintance with No.7.  Though, as I have indicated, memories of hearing the Handley version of the First are not expunged, I am perfectly happy to live with Thomson’s version – and more than happy with his version of the Sixth.  But do bear in mind that Handley’s First is a more economical proposition as a download, as well as offering an excellent performance. 

The downloads of the separate symphonies in this Thomson cycle all come with the ability to download the booklet of notes.  Sadly, that is not the case with this recording, but it is possible to download and print out the pdf. booklet which accompanies the separate issue of the Sixth and the booklet for the Handley set – an interview with the conductor – is also offered free to all comers.  If it’s notes on the First Symphony that you require, these can be obtained from the Naxos booklet, available on their website.

Brian Wilson


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