This is a huge, sprawling, derivative symphony, created when the composer was 24 years old, and while he was still feeling his way to his own distinctive style. It may well, at first acquaintance, be of interest only to confirmed and dedicated Bax admirers but there is much of interest here if you can get past an undeniable tendency towards loquaciousness and the weakness of the structure. As Rob Barnett comments, in his review, this Symphony is more akin to four separate tone poems.
Martin Yates has set down an eloquent realisation and orchestration, capturing Bax’s idiomatic sound faithfully. This gargantuan work which was completed by Bax during his stay in Dresden - details in Bax’s part-autobiography Farewell My Youth - was left in piano score format. It is a confident, wilful, thrusting work.
The first movement, spanning 20:05 minutes, opens boldly and assertively; a few recognisable seascape evocations, often dramatic, are discernible through its progress. Influences include those of the Russian Late-Romantic composers such as Glazunov plus touches of Dvořák and Elgar – and the influence of a girlfriend, Dorothy Pyman, who was with him in Dresden at the time. Her presence may well have shaped that lovely long-breathed melody that unwinds with its enchanting filigree decorations from about 4:18.
The Elgarian influence, to my mind, is strongly felt in the lovely second movement (lasting 18:25). It is here that we can more easily anticipate the mature Bax. There is a tender love song that reminisces Elgarian sweetness. It might be remembered that Bax came strongly under the spell of Elgar in the first decade of the 20th century and we have an account, in Farewell My Youth, of Bax meeting the older composer at his Worcestershire woodland retreat in 1901. Countering this sweetness there are passages of elemental turbulence and tempestuous emotions. Irish folk material is apparent too and the whole is rounded off with a swaggering coda.
The third movement, of almost 14 minutes, is ballet-like in the Russian manner but there is also a marked influence of Ravel too. The music anticipates Ravel’s La Valse by a dozen-plus years. A programme for this movement suggests the plight of the over-civilised, hypersensitive modern man at the mercy of his complex emotional state.
The final epic-proportioned movement lasting over 25 minutes, again shows the Russian influence and especially that of Glazunov. Again Elgar is strongly apparent too - even before the first minute has elapsed. A broad Baxian melody is stated at 5:05 which becomes quite Elgarian as it proceeds. We feel the presence of Elgar again in the graceful minuet heard at about seven minutes in. Later at 18:37 there is interesting material that anticipates Elgar’s passage-work for his two symphonies.
Mainly for devotees of Arnold Bax; nevertheless there is much to reward the patient listener prepared to overlook much loquaciousness.
Previous review: Rob Barnett