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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No 2 (1924-26) [36:46]
Winter Legends for piano and orchestra (1930) [42:53]
John McCabe (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Eugene Goossens (symphony)
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Raymond Leppard (legends)
BBC studio recordings, broadcast 3 November 1956 (Symphony: ADD/Mono); 6 October 1978 (Legends: ADD/Stereo)
LYRITA ITTER BROADCAST COLLECTION REAM1137 [79:41]

I believe I’m right in saying that Lyrita was the first company to issue a commercial recording of Bax’s Second Symphony. That was the recording conducted by Myer Fredman which was issued in the early 1970s (review). Since then further recordings have been released, conducted by Bryden Thomson (Chandos), David Lloyd-Jones and Vernon Handley. This Goossens performance, from the Richard Itter collection of off-air broadcast recordings therefore brings the total of available recordings to five, which is quite something. Furthermore, the Goossens traversal has appeared on CD before. That was a Dutton release which was reviewed by Rob Barnett ten years ago. I’ve not heard that Dutton disc though I note that Rob referred to the “fallible” sound in which the symphony was to be heard. Since Dutton transfers are usually pretty good I can only assume that the fallibility to which Rob referred is attributable to the source material. Given the availability of the performance on another label the question was rightly raised on our Message Board a little while ago why Lyrita should chose to issue this recording themselves.

Unfortunately, since I’ve not heard the Dutton CD I can’t tell you whether the Lyrita transfer represents an improvement in audio terms. What I can say, however, is that while this recording inevitably lacks the amplitude and detail of any of the three modern versions referenced above, all of which I’ve heard, the sound is still pretty good and I don’t think the sound quality will mar the enjoyment of anyone who acquires Goossens’ performance.

And there are plenty of reasons why Bax devotees should have Goossens’ reading in their collection. One is the historical connection. It was Goossens who conducted the symphony’s UK premiere in May 1930 (the world premiere had taken place in Boston the previous December under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky.) The very thorough and interesting booklet notes, which are by my MusicWeb colleague, Rob Barnett, quote an appreciative assessment of Goossens’ 1930 performance contained in a letter from Bax to Gustav Holst. I don’t know how often, if at all, Goossens returned to the symphony after 1930 but this 1956 performance demonstrates a fine grip on the music and a significant capability to put it across to listeners. Credit is due to the members of the BBCSO, too; under Goossens’ leadership they are thoroughly convincing in what must have been an unfamiliar score.

The first of the three movements has a powerful, glowering beginning, which is well realised here. When the pace picks up (3:30) Goossens injects considerable energy into the music. Listening, I felt that he keeps a firm grip on proceedings even when, as at around 8:00, Bax goes off into warm Romantic by-ways. The slow movement is highly atmospheric and romantic. Goossens displays strong sympathy with the music, responding to its poetry. Rob Barnett hits the nail right on the head in describing the finale as “scowling”. The opening is apprehensive and tense but soon a potent dance erupts. Goossens drives the music forward with purpose until the extensive climax (6:11-7:15). This climax is positively pagan in its ferocity and you can just about make out the addition of organ pedals. Thereafter to the end of the movement the music is a kind of epilogue, though not described as such. These closing minutes are not entirely tranquil; the atmosphere seems uneasy at times. Though this clearly could not be a library choice for the Bax Second, it’s a fine account of the symphony nonetheless and I’m glad to have it.

For Baxians a great deal of interest will lie in the fact that John McCabe is the pianist in Winter Legends. He was recognised as a very fine pianist in his lifetime and he’s excellent here. He’s working with Raymond Leppard – the performance was given during Leppard’s period as Chief Conductor of the BBC Northern (1973-80). He was something of a surprise choice to record for Lyrita both the Fifth and Seventh Bax symphonies but his versions, which I bought first as LPs and later as CDs, were impressive (review). It’s good to have this further evidence of his credentials in the composer’s music.

The catalogue already contains three recordings of this work. There’s a 1954 recording by the work’s dedicate and first champion, Harriet Cohen (review). I’ve not heard that. There are also two modern digital recordings of Winter Legends. The first to appear was by Margaret Fingerhut with Bryden Thomson (review). Subsequently, Ashley Wass set down a version for Naxos, though I’ve not heard that (review). I bought the Fingerhut recording when it was first issued but it’s many years since I listened to it, which may say something about the work – or me. Rob Barnett quotes Benjamin Britten’s description of the piece as “longwinded rambling boring stuff.” I wouldn’t go that far but I think it might have improved the piece had Bax written more concisely. That’s especially true of the first movement, in which I struggle to discern the structure. Frankly, the Second Symphony is taut by comparison. That said, McCabe and the orchestra give an excellent account of it.

The central slow movement is more successful, I think. I like Rob Barnett’s comment that the movement “coolly sidles in”. It’s rich in atmosphere and colourfully scored. At the start of the finale there’s a fascinating contrast of texture as an extended tuba solo is played underneath shimmering piano figurations: Bax certainly had an ear for sonorities and instrumental colour. The main body of the movement alternates pagan dance-like passages and more ruminative episodes. After an exultant climax the movement falls away into the Epilogue (separately tracked) which begins with a pensive piano solo. This is no twilight epilogue, however; the episode expands into ripely romantic music scored very fully for orchestra. It’s only towards the very end that a tranquil note is struck.

Despite the presence of the Fingerhut recording in my collection for the best part of thirty years this isn’t a Bax score that I can claim to know very well. However, McCabe and Leppard make a persuasive case for it. As you might imagine, the stereo recording is considerably richer and more detailed than the fifty-year-old sound in which the symphony is presented.

This is an important Bax issue and I welcome it very much. Lyrita have transferred both recordings very successfully. Rob Barnett’s notes are very good. Most admirers of the composer will already possess recordings of both of these scores but I would still encourage them to hear this disc.

John Quinn

 




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