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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Dance of Wild Irravel (1912-13) [5:25]
Pæan (1920, orch. 1938) [3:19]
Symphony No.3 (1928-9) [49:37]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London, 9-10 January, 1986.  DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN8454 [58:32]
Experience Classicsonline

Bryden Thomson’s series of Bax symphonies was replaced some time ago by new versions from Vernon Handley.  The older versions remained in the catalogue as a mid-price 5-CD box set (CHAN8906) but have now apparently been deleted even in that format.  They are available, however, in download form: the complete set in 320kbps mp3and lossless formats at £5.50 and £9.90 respectively per CD.  The recordings are more generously coupled in this version, though some remain short value – this version of the Third takes a whole CD without coupling – and some symphonies are split across tracks.  The individual recordings also remain available under their original catalogue numbers, as here, though in mp3 format only, for £6 each.
At this price the obvious comparison is with the Naxos recording (Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones, 8.553608, coupled with The Happy Forest).  CW was somewhat ambivalent about this Naxos version: “there’s very little wrong with this 3rd... [but it] doesn’t quite capture that elusive glint of gold.”  (See review.)  Whereas with the Fourth, Naxos offer a more generous coupling than Chandos, their CD of the Third is shorter – neither is over-generous, though Chandos at least have the excuse that their timings were initially limited by simultaneous LP release.
Most Baxians will already have a version of The Happy Forest – coupled, for example, on a very recommendable and attractively priced Bryden Thomson CD, with Tintagel, The Garden of Fand, etc., CHAN10156X; the two Chandos fillers here are much less well-known, though both are well worth hearing.  With some good PR work, either could easily become really popular – who would have thought that Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending would have become so popular had it not been plugged on Classic FM?
Wild Irravel, the last of a set of Four Orchestral Sketches, lay forgotten until revived by Bryden Thomson for this recording.  Like Pæan, originally conceived as a piano piece and orchestrated for the Henry Wood Jubilee, it employs large forces, including bells and organ.  Both works are well performed here.
It is right and proper that these shorter works should be placed first, since the moody opening of the symphony’s first movement is all the more effective for following such boisterous works.  Of course, it is possible – but a nuisance – to programme the order of the tracks whether playing the music from hard drive, mp3 player or from CD, the latter being my preferred option – simplicity itself to burn with Windows Media Player or, better still, a dedicated programme such as Roxio Disc Creator. 
It is not difficult to appreciate from this performance why the Third Symphony, dedicated to Sir Henry Wood, became so popular in the 1930s.  From the very beginning Bryden Thomson has just the right approach: restrained until the music bursts into life, then tender and meditative as the energy recedes.  The climax at the end of the first movement is especially well handled.  Many have been tempted to construct a programme – no doubt there is a connection with the sea, akin to the references  in the Fourth Symphony, Tintagel, of which there are undeniable echoes in the second movement, or The Garden of Fand – but Thomson is content to let the music speak for itself.  Bax prefaced the short score with a quotation from Nietzsche – “My wisdom became pregnant on lonely mountains; upon barren stones she brought forth her young” – and Morar, where the work was composed is twixt the mountains and the sea, but he seems to have thought better of this quotation and suppressed it from the full score.  The seascape on the Chandos cover offers just the right hint for the music, though the Naxos cover is the more tasteful.
The horn and trumpet calls at the beginning of the second movement are certainly evocative, but of what?  Trumpets calling from sad shires, perhaps, like those in Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony – but now I’m getting involved in the game of finding the programme.  Michael Oliver found himself doing something similar in his 1986 review, though along different lines.  He attributed his yielding to the temptation to the eloquence and richness of Thomson’s performance, a sentiment with which I thoroughly agree. 
A lento second movement immediately after a lento moderato opening movement could easily sound like too much of a good thing, but Bax makes it otherwise, with Bryden Thomson’s help.  The jaunty opening of the finale could easily be overdone but Thomson resists the temptation: here, as elsewhere, his tempi seem to fit the music like a glove.  As a result, the Epilogue still sounds ethereal and beautiful, but no longer seems disjoined from the rest of the movement.  No doubt Vernon Handley is even more successful in this respect in his more recent version, available on CD with the complete symphonies or as a download, coupled with the First Symphony, over 74 minutes in total, an excellent bargain at £8.40 for the mp3 or £10.00 for the lossless version. 
As usual, Lloyd-Jones (Naxos) shaves something off Thomson’s times in each movement without sounding rushed and Handley is faster still.  I don’t have the Handley version to hand for comparison, but, speaking from memory of a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the recording, neither he nor Lloyd-Jones sounds rushed.  Nor, on the other hand, did I find Thomson too slow as he pauses to view the landscape, as it were: all three versions make sense within their own terms.  Perhaps Handley just has the edge – he seems to have inherited the Beecham touch of making the music sound better than it is, in this case by capturing all the beauty of the music without sounding episodic.
These Chandos recording were shared between the Ulster Orchestra and the LPO, both of whom acquit themselves well, with very little to choose between the Ulster players in the Fourth and the LPO here.
CW referred to this Thomson recording as “waterlogged in the Chandos swimming-bath” but I was perfectly happy with it, even in mp3 format – no complaints at all about listening on good loudspeakers, just a very slight hint of congestion at climaxes – and, in any case, there is no lossless equivalent unless you purchase the symphony alone from the complete set: rather poor value at 49 minutes.  What seemed like demonstration quality in 1986 still sounds pretty well. 
One small mystery – though billed as 320kbps, both Windows Explorer and my mp3 player report the bit-rate to be 192kbps, though they correctly report other Chandos downloads as 320.  Incidentally, playing the recording on the mps3 player via the input which Arcam thoughtfully provide on the front of the Solo sounded little inferior to burning the music to CDR.
The full booklet can be downloaded from the Chandos website in pdf format, even by those who do not wish to purchase.  It prints out much better than that for the Fourth Symphony and the notes by Lewis Foreman, brief but informative, are well worth having.
If you haven’t yet dipped a toe into the download water, this is as good a place as any to start.  Fine, evocative, music, excellently performed and sounding much better than mp3 recordings at lower bit-rates, all for £6, what are you waiting for?
Brian Wilson


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