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ARNOLD BAX Symphony No. 2; November Woods Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos 8.554093



November Woods

My reason for reviewing November Woods before the Symphony will become clear later so please bear with me. Bax's Tone Poem November Woods, written in October 1916, not only depicts the turbulence of an Autumn storm as it wracks a woodland but it also reflects the composer's passion for Harriet Cohen. The lovers would meet clandestinely in a small pub in Amersham near the woods, covering the nearby Chiltern Hills, where Bax had once sheltered from such a storm.

Bax's poem Amersham sets the scene:

.....Storm, a mad painter's brush, swept sky and land

With burning signs of beauty and despair

And once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake

And in our hearts tears stung and the old ache

Was more than any God would have us bear.

Then in a drowsy town the inn of dreams

Shuts out awhile October's sky of dread

Drugged in the wood reek, under the black beams

Nestled against my arm her little head

The music of November Woods is Bax's musical realisation of the hostile elemental forces and passionate sentiments of these verses. One of Bax's loveliest romantic passages, sensuous, tender and passionate, is bracketed by stormy violence that is both sudden and sustained as boughs creak and branches heave under howling gales, driving rain and flashes of lightning. Lloyd Jones's evocation is every bit as thrilling and vivid as that of Boult (on Lyrita SRCD 231). I must say that I also admire Bryden Thomson more leisurely, but not unexciting, approach on CHAN 8307 in really opulent Chandos sound.

Symphony No. 2

Bax's magnificent Symphony No. 2 was written between 1924 and 1926. It is the second episode in the continuing saga that is Bax's seven symphony cycle. Its first movement catapults us straight into the violent world that was unleashed in the First Symphony (1921-22). As Lewis Foreman stated in his notes for the 1971 Myer Fredman recording of this work (Lyrita LP SRCS. 54): "The mood in this movement is that of November Woods in which an emotional crisis was depicted in terms of stormy nature, and is even more convincingly argued." Bax described it as being "heavy with impending catastrophe". The music is passionate and tempestuous, heavy with conflict the music tugging and grinding against itself fitfully with only brief moments of respite.

The second movement is reminiscent of Holst in his unworldy mode until Bax quickly asserts his own style with the horn call in the second and third bars. This movement is predominantly lyrical and passionate. Lewis reminded us that it had been suggested that the whole work might be viewed as "one vast love song". Personally I think this is very much of an over-simplification but certainly the slow movement might qualify for such a description. Lloyd-Jones realises all its tenderness and passion and his climax hits you with all the force of a tidal wave. Lloyd-Jones interpretation of this symphony is a triumph - read with scorching, white-heat intensity. The ferocity of the catastrophic finale comes across with great impact. Lloyd-Jones also heeds the detail too. Note that extraordinary passage about 5 minutes into the finale where Bax creates a sound world entirely of his own a magic domain created by imaginative use of harps, tremolando strings in mid-register, percussive piano and close snare drumming in crescendo.

I would just quote again from Lewis's notes: "The psychological interrelation of the first three symphonies of Bax has often been remarked upon, but is worth restating. The demon that possessed Bax in the First Symphony is really only presented in that work; having relieved himself of its stating, Bax expiates it in this Second Symphony, which can be regarded as a chart of his spiritual and emotional wanderings in the mid 'twenties . Thus in the Third Symphony, written in 1928 and 1929, after the composer had discovered what was to become his artistic retreat at Morar in Scotland, he attempted a stylistic and emotional synthesis finding repose in the serene Epilogue."

I wonder if Naxos really appreciate the value of their investment in this Lloyd-Jones Bax cycle. The release of its component parts seems slow and widely spaced in the extreme and its presentation with only a four page booklet (with no language translations) seems niggardly. And as yet there seems to be no news of the project's completion. Keith Anderson's notes are scholarly. He tends to have got lost in the detail of the notes rather than communicating the equally if not more essential human psychological and elemental elements of these works.

My colleague Richard Adams agrees with me that this new Lloyd-Jones album now supersedes the other existing Chandos recording with Bryden Thomson. Personally, I think it is the equal of Myer Fredman's 1971 Lyrita recording which I hope one day we shall be able to more properly assess in a refurbished digital CD edition. As Richard has mentioned, Fredman had the huge advantage of an inspired LPO and a much better recording engineer. Richard has also commented (and I would generally agree) "...that the sound on the Naxos Bax 2 is inferior to the sound given to Naxos Bax 1 where the strings have much more body. Bax 2 was recorded first and I suspect Naxos had not yet figured out how to record in the Glasgow Hall and Lloyd-Jones was relatively new to both the RSNO and Bax. Given all that, I think he did an admirable job and he certainly displays a strong feeling for Bax and a command of Bax's symphonic structures." On that last point I agree absolutely!


Ian Lace

You can read the review by Richard Adams here

Visit the Arnold Bax Web Site


Ian Lace

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