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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 2 (1924-6) [37:39]
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1931-2)* [40:46]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman (2); Raymond Leppard* (5)
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, London, Oct 1970 (2), Feb 1971 (5). ADD
originally issued on LP as SRCS 54 (2); SRCS 58 (5)
LYRITA SRCD.233 [78.28]

Experience Classicsonline


The Lyrita LPs of these and other Bax symphonies were my introduction to the music of this "brazen romantic" and their appearance on CD is a cause for celebration. Apart from anything else, this CD issue confirms just how marvellous were the sonic results that the respective engineers achieved and it’s good to see these men now credited in the booklet.

I remember thinking at the time that Raymond Leppard (b. 1927) was not an obvious choice to conduct Bax. In those days he was much better known as a conductor and editor of high baroque and pre-classical music. I don’t know how much work he’d done with "conventional" symphony orchestras at the time this recording was made – it wasn’t until 1973 that he became Principal Conductor of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra – but he conducts the Fifth Symphony with splendid authority and evident sympathy.

The Fifth was dedicated to Sibelius, an apt dedication listeners may feel. The music may not be as tightly organised or as tautly constructed as that of the Finnish master but one can often sense the presence of Tapio. The mysterious opening to the first of the three movements has a legendary feel to it and Leppard distils a powerful atmosphere. When the Allegro con fuoco arrives (3:53) his direction has great drive. Throughout the movement – and, indeed, throughout the symphony as a whole – he gets splendid playing from the LPO, both in the energetic passages and in the work’s frequent ruminative stretches. It has to be said that the music can be in danger of meandering at times during these reflective passages but Leppard avoids such traps and it seems to me that his conducting consistently retains focus. He achieves an excellent impetus in the brazen dance passage (from around 11:00 to 14:20) and the "Celtic" episode immediately following is atmospherically delivered before Bax revisits his opening material.

The second movement begins with an impressive brass-led introduction, which is well done here, before brooding lower strings announce the main thematic material, which I feel has something of the air of a Russian chant. The movement finds Bax firmly in his Celtic faery and legendary modes and Leppard seems well attuned to the style. At 4:29 there’s a lovely cor anglais solo and soon after there’s some equally good work from the solo horn. I like the way that Leppard keeps a firm hand on the tiller while giving full value to the pronounced poetic vein of the music.

The finale has energy and dash, and so does Leppard’s reading of it. Robert Layton, who contributes an excellent note, draws a parallel with the ‘Uranus’ movement from Holst’s ‘Planets’ Suite, a most persuasive comparison. In this performance sharp, well-pointed accents propel the music forward very positively. Between 4:05 and 6:33 a slow interlude arrests the pace of the music. To my ears Leppard invests this section with an appropriate touch of menace. Though the fast tempo reasserts itself Bax is a little slow to build up a head of speed. However, a huge climax is achieved at 7:25, which is given full value by Leppard and his players – and by the engineers. The slow, grave epilogue unfolds beautifully (from 8:25) until the LPO horns ornament richly the final peroration – a sumptuous moment. Thus a splendid performance comes to a ripe close. Hearing it again – I haven’t been able to play the LP for years – reminded me that it was Leppard who had ensured that the Fifth became, along with the Third, my favourite Bax symphony.

Myer Fredman (b. 1932) made several important contributions to the Lyrita catalogue of which this Bax Second is one. It’s worth saying at the outset that once again, as with the Fifth, our enjoyment of this performance is enhanced by the excellent note, this time by Lewis Foreman.

As Foreman writes, the first movement introduction is "heavy with impending catastrophe". The music is pregnant with meaning and Fredman lays it out superbly. When it arrives (3:33) the allegro molto is a much-needed release of tension. The music now is dynamic and turbulent and Fredman keeps it at boiling point. Eventually Bax goes off into one of his slow by-ways but Fredman is just as adept as was Leppard at keeping the sense of momentum. The wild dance resumes at 11:00 and for a few measures I thought the music was reminiscent of the Sacrificial Dance in Le Sacre du Printemps.

At the start of the slow movement there’s more than a whiff of Holst in the quiet wind ostinati and the slow-moving string lines. The music is predominantly lyrical. I’d describe the lyricism as "lukewarm" but I don’t use that term pejoratively; what I mean is that the music has warmth but also the occasional chill, just to keep the listener honest. The subdued, brief coda is most affecting.

The main body of the third movement is an allegro, bearing the description feroce. Fredman gives this music visceral bite. However, this mood is not sustained. At times there is a relaxation in both volume and surface tension. It’s enormously to Fredman’s credit that he keeps a tight grip on proceedings in these passages. The climax, when it arrives (6:31), is shattering in its power with the organ adding immeasurably to the potency of the scoring. After that Fredman negotiates the wind down to the closing epilogue with great skill. In his note Lewis Foreman perceptively looks forward to the last movement of the Vaughan Williams Sixth.

This is a superb performance and, once again, the engineers have captured it, as they did the Fifth, in magnificent analogue sound.

Since these two recordings first appeared – on separate LPs, of course – we’ve had fine recordings of both of these symphonies by Bryden Thompson, David Lloyd-Jones and, of course, by the late and much-lamented Vernon Handley. All of those have their great merits. However the two performances on this CD should both have a place of honour in any Bax collection.

John Quinn


See also reviews by Rob Barnett, Brian Wilson and Ian Lace

MusicWeb Arnold Bax pages





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