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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No.5 (1932) [42:48]
Russian Suite (1912-1915, orch. 1919) [18:45]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. St Jude’s Church, Central Square, London, 2-3 November 1988. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN8669 [61:41]

Experience Classicsonline


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Immediately prior to listening to this recording, I played through the award-winning Naxos version (Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones, 8.554509), the obvious comparison for anyone not wishing to buy the newer, full-price Chandos Vernon Handley recording. I cannot disagree with a single word of the praise that has been bestowed on this Naxos version, which I have listened to with pleasure since I bought it several years ago. 

Lloyd-Jones offers a brisker version of the first movement (17:13 against Thomson’s slightly more leisurely 17:32). Which you prefer will depend on whether you like the tighter, slightly more symphonic approach on Naxos or the slightly more meandering Chandos version. Put crudely, Lloyd-Jones always has his eye on the goal, Thomson is more inclined to savour the magic of individual passages. As Bax dedicated the work to Sibelius, there is much to be said for the tighter approach but ultimately I am very happy with either version in its own terms. 

In the slow movement Thomson is again a little too inclined to savour the moment but once more there is very little to choose between the two versions. Lloyd-Jones is again a shade brisker (11:15 against 11:24: after all, the lento marking is modified, poco lento) and perhaps a degree more evocative of the music of the dedicatee, Sibelius. Thomson is slightly more inclined to view the scenery along the route, but what wonderful scenery it is – and I don’t wish to suggest that Lloyd-Jones is oblivious to its charms like some latter-day Dr Johnson, who drew the curtains of his carriage windows to avoid seeing the rugged scenery on his visit to Scotland. 

Lloyd-Jones is also much brisker in the poco moderato finale (12:34 against 13:43) but I never felt that Thomson was dawdling. Once again, both interpretations make excellent sense within their own terms. Thomson’s account of the Epilogue is especially stirring. In his review of the Lloyd-Jones version, my colleague IL felt that he really scored over Thomson in this movement, finding the latter slow and rambling – see review. Overall, however, though he felt that the newer version superseded the older, I can certainly echo his comment that “there are great moments in Thomson’s reading that I will always treasure”. 

The newer Vernon Handley version shaves time off even Lloyd-Jones’s timings in all three movements (15:46, 10:12 and 11:48). I didn’t have this version to hand for comparison but, from recollection of hearing it broadcast some time ago on BBC Radio 3, it never sounds unduly hasty. On CD the Handley version is available only in the complete set but may be downloaded disc by disc, good value at £8.40 in mp3 format or £10 for the lossless version – coupled with the Sixth Symphony, 73:51 in total. 

The choice of coupling may decide the issue. Naxos offer a fine version of The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew, Chandos the Russian Suite. Baxians may well already own a version of The Tale but not the Russian Suite. The Russian Suite is hardly in the class of The Tale but it is pleasant enough music and it receives a good performance here. Handley’s coupling of the whole of the Sixth Symphony is, of course, the most generous.

The Naxos recording is very good in its CD format – I cannot speak for the mp3 version: see below for details. The Chandos is perhaps slightly more diffuse but, like all the 320kbps Chandos downloads which I have recently heard, I can find no real fault with it, whether on an mp3 player or burned to CD. My Arcam Solo was a little fussy about playing the CD – it is often very choosy about playing CDRs – and gave up after playing the symphony, the first three tracks. Perhaps it thought the Russian Suite too trivial, but my other decks gladly obliged. 

The Chandos notes, by Lewis Foreman, are excellent; those by Nina Large for Naxos not quite their equal but fully adequate. The Naxos cover is the more tasteful, the John Knox painting very appropriate. 

The Chandos is now available only as a download at £6; the Naxos is available as a CD at around the same price or to download from emusic (for less than £1 if you take the 50 tracks per month option) or £4.99 from Classicsonline. The Chandos booklet of notes may be downloaded as a printable Adobe pdf document. Neither emusic nor Classicsonline offers this service, but the Naxos notes may be accessed from their own website. Very generously both Chandos and Naxos make their notes available to all comers free of charge. 

As is the case with the downloads of the Third and Fourth Symphonies, I cannot imagine anyone being dissatisfied with this recording. If you like Bax’s shorter works like Tintagel but are hesitating about trying the symphonies, £6 spent on this download would be a good place to start. 

Brian Wilson 

 


 


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