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; be aware that 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.
The Fourth is perhaps the least well-known of Bax’s
symphonies. The Penguin Guide dismisses it as “incontrovertibly
the weakest of the seven”, an opinion no doubt attributable
in the main to Robert Layton, who expressed much the same
sentiment in his original Gramophone review of this
recording; he did, however, modify that sentiment by praising
this account. So serious is the PG’s dislike of the
work that the very good Naxos recording is not even listed,
though their versions of all the other symphonies are. That
Naxos version (8.555343, coupled with Nympholept and
the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy), retailing in
CD form for around £5-£6 and available online for £4.99, is
the obvious rival to compare with the Thomson version.
The Gramophone Guide does not share the
PG’s dislike of this symphony, describing it as “the
most exuberantly inventive and colourful of the cycle”, an
opinion with which I find it hard to disagree, especially
in two such fine performances. The construction is not as
taut as one would normally expect in a symphony – more like
a triptych of tone poems – but the music is very enjoyable.
Bax described the work as an evocation of the sea
at high tide in summer, a particularly apt description of
the outer movements – shades of Debussy’s La Mer in
the allegro Finale. The lento moderato slow
movement is an evocation of a sunny afternoon almost on a
par with l’Après-midi d’un Faune. If you like Debussy,
you’ll almost certainly warm to this symphony.
David Lloyd-Jones’s account on Naxos is a degree
tauter in the first two movements – in each of these he shaves
around a minute off Thomson’s timings – and honours are about
even in the Finale. As usual, however, timings tell only
part of the story, since both conductors capture the magic
of the music and both are well served by their orchestras.
Indeed, despite the shorter timings, Lloyd-Jones seems more
prepared to bask in the more luxurious passages. Neither
the Ulster Orchestra (Chandos) nor the Royal Scottish National
Orchestra (Naxos) is in the top league, but both serve their
conductors and the music well. The Ulster players, perhaps,
just have the edge in the weightier passages but it is a very
close call. Heard alone, each version makes perfectly good
On this occasion my resolve to keep only one recording
of each work in my over-large collection will be severely
tested. I think my ultimate choice is likely to be the Thomson
– I note that RB also marginally preferred this in his otherwise
welcoming appraisal of the Naxos – see review.
The performance of Tintagel on this recording
is also available on CHAN10156X, available as a CD or as a
download, coupled with The Garden of Fand and other
short pieces. Whichever coupling you choose, I cannot imagine
a better performance of this popular piece.
The Naxos coupling offers two less well-known pieces.
I imagine that most listeners will prefer Tintagel,
but you may well already have that – especially if you have
chosen to follow my recent recommendation of its new coupling.
The Naxos couplings may not have the immediate attraction
of Tintagel, but both are well worth having.
Naxos place the two shorter works first, which
I generally prefer, making it easier to skip to the start
of the symphony if you wish. The playing time of that recording
is a more generous 65 minutes; at 57 minutes, the Chandos
now seems short value, though there are still new CDs appearing
with even shorter playing times. Purchasing from the complete
set on CHAN8906 doesn’t help, since it is there split across
two CDs. You could, of course, purchase an extra track of
your choice from another Chandos download – tracks are priced
separately – and create your own longer programme.
Both recordings do the music full justice. Though
made in the early days of digital recording – the enthusiastic
notes about this new phenomenon in the booklet now read rather
quaintly – the Chandos still sounds very well, even in mp3
format. Heard on good speakers, the result is hardly distinguishable
from recent CDs; heard through headphones there is the merest
suggestion of uneasiness at climaxes. The Naxos recording,
made in the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow in 2000, is slightly
brighter and more forward.
The pdf. booklet is not as well presented as those
offered with other Chandos downloads – the scan is rather
smudgy by comparison – but the notes, by Lewis Foreman, are