Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony in F (1907) (realised and orch. Martin Yates, (2013)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
World premiere recording
rec. RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 15-16 August 2013
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX7308 [78:28]
Dutton have done wonders in resurrecting, recovering, realising and recording scores long thought inaccessible, lost or well beyond our listening experience. Their catalogue includes some superb ‘resurrections’ including the Elgar Piano Concerto and Martin Yates’ realisation of the Moeran Second Symphony. Yates has also done similar inspired service for Cyril Scott’s early piano concerto and cello concerto (Dutton Epoch CDLX7302). Here they turn their beneficent attention to what amounts to Bax’s Symphony No. 0.
First a few personal reflections. In the first flush of enthusiasm I biked over to Totnes from Torquay and ordered the late Colin Scott-Sutherland’s then newly published book on Bax. That was in about 1974. Finally it arrived and having got it home I read it from cover to cover. I found much of it hard-going. Its poetic, philosophical and musicological frames of reference made it a tough read for someone in their early twenties with no technical musical background. I read and re-read it, having been utterly captivated by the little that I had heard of Bax. While I wished it had more to say about Bax’s life I absorbed every word and wondered over the lists of works. It was, at that stage, unthinkable that so much of what was listed would be broadcast or recorded; the latter now achieved by the likes of Chandos, Lyrita and Dutton. The door opened further in the centenary year and I recorded each of the BBC Radio 3 programmes with new vistas opened each time. While the Bax Society was dead and gone by about 1973 open-handed Baxians put me permanently in their debt in the 1980s by sending me cassettes of broadcasts ancient and modern. Amid all this activity and a kaleidoscope of discoveries I never expected to hear the Symphony in F. Now I can.
This Symphony was written by a composer only 24 years old. As wonderfully realised by Martin Yates, this is a hugely ambitious four-movement work. Truth to tell it is discursive and on occasion garrulous. That said, its tendency to ramble is very welcome. The young Bax follows his spontaneous course across a landscape full of familiar landmarks. Bax evolved his DNA early and Martin Yates has absorbed the genetic identifiers across the whole range of Bax’s output. It’s a veritable kaleidoscope of the composer’s fingerprints. Each movement is about twenty minutes in duration - effectively four tone poems.
The first movement, which in truth can be quite episodic, has a brusque warlike tone with memories of Rosc-Catha and Northern Ballad No. 1. Along the way there are passages evocative of the icy glamour of Winter Legends, sections that seem like a drifting Debussian vision and violin writing that sound like a Finzian carol. There’s an impressive second movement that could easily be played as a free-stander. Towards the end there are several passages where typically glassy massed violins bring back memories of similar effects in the Seventh Symphony. We then reach the brilliant picturesque third movement. Early on it is Iberian in flavour and had me thinking of his brief and rather flat Mediterranean even down to the castanets … not to mention Chabrier’s España and Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole. The movement ends in wild abandon unnervingly like Khachaturian at his most eruptive. The finale takes us back to the barbaric ceremonial qualities of the first movement and the works of Bax’s last years (Victory March, Malta GC and Coronation March) but matches them with pre-echoes of the Rimskian jovialities of the Third Symphony, the stirring warrior exultation of Rosc-Catha and the dirge-like unison strings of the Fifth Symphony.
This orchestra has been familiar with the Bax idiom having recorded all seven symphonies for Naxos with David Lloyd-Jones. They sound utterly committed and exalt in the moment of discovery. This is no learnt-by-rote library shelf read-through; far from it. The brilliant - no-holds-barred recording matches the spirit of the playing and Lewis Foreman’s notes likewise.
With this recorded can other fine and unrecorded works be given their recorded premiere by Dutton? There is no shortage of candidates but several works cry out for attention: Joseph Marx’s voluptuously lyrical Eine Herbstsymphonie, Joseph Holbrooke’s Queen Mab and Apollo and the Seaman, Benjamin Dale’s The Flowing Tide and William Baines’ single symphony with Island of the Fey and Thoughtdrift.
Back to Bax: Here we have it: a young man’s symphony written when his ideas flowed urgently like milk and honey. This is cause for joy among Baxians. Loquacious, self-indulgent, gorgeous and densely luxuriant as it is, you would do well to hear it.