December 10th 2008

Review from March 2003

RECORDING OF THE MONTH


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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 6 (1934)
Into the Twilight (1908)
Summer Music (1920)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. 2002, Glasgow DDD
NAXOS 8.557144 [57.46]

 

This recording of Bax's finest symphony goes straight to top recommendation. For anyone wanting to hear the work to best effect this is the disc to have. It stands well above the ClassicO version (Munich SO/Bostock) which was rather shrill - a pity for a work so dependant on barbaric Bakstian colour. The Bryden Thomson version is amongst the best sounding of the Chandos cycle from the ’eighties and ’nineties. However Lloyd-Jones has a much better grip on urgency and forward movement so essential to making Bax symphonies work.

Sound Sample: Opening 1st Movement

The only other commercial recording is from the mid-1960s and that still languishes amid the vinyl in collections, lofts and outhouses across the world. [This review preceded the Chandos Handley recordings] This Lyrita was the second Bax symphony ever to be recorded onto LP (the first was the Revolution/Concert Artist version in which the thin-reedy Guildford PO were conducted by Vernon Handley in the Fourth Symphony).

The drive, repose, fantasy and even, to some extent, the microphone placement during the Glasgow sessions for this disc seem to have been designed to produce an effect close to the Del Mar/New Philharmonia Orchestra recording. Whether this is by coincidence or by design hardly matters at all because, rather like the Solti Elgar 2 (where the conductor was rumoured to have spent time studying the composer's own recordings), the effect is stupendous. By the way the Del Mar Lyrita sessions must have been amongst the earliest after the orchestra was compelled to change its name by adding the 'New' for legal reasons. The grip of that Lyrita recording made many Bax converts (it won me over instantly) and would do again if ever reissued (this version has now been reissued link SRCD296). Of course it had its glorious and inglorious weaknesses. Inglorious is the irksome requirement to change side. Glorious was the indulgent microphone placement that spot-lit instruments - perhaps an earylish example of Phase 4 techniques. The Lloyd-Jones version seems to use the Del Mar Lyrita as a pilgrim's compass. The reading is spot-on. It does not drift and dream although it does have its designed passages of eloquent introspection and quiet threat. There are wars inherent in this music as well as the cradling of the subtle and the ever-young - try 6.53 onwards in the second movement.

Sample

Listening to this symphony in such a splendidly direct reading one can see the reason why Bax's first instinct to dedicate the work to Karol Szymanowski (recently dead at the date of the premiere) was so apposite. In fact Bax changed the dedicatee so that Adrian Boult's name appears in the printed score.

This work is a most beautiful piece slashed and ravaged into an emotionally cogent and superbly gripping piece of music-making. Has British music ever produced a moment more shockingly visceral than the elemental heaven-clawing triumph instantly fallen to supernal dust in the finale (09.17 track 3)?

Sample

 

Crisp playing from the RSNO extends from the ruthless attack of the double basses to the edgy immediacy and rugged growl of the trombones to the upward shuddering rushes of the strings (11.40 and 11.47) to the tricky mithril trumpets that sing out their delicate hearts at 12.20 in the finale.

Epilogue

 

Of the fillers, Into the Twilight is an early Irish work with a rapturous melody of Celtic curve - its horizon stated with dripping romance on the strings at 4.17.

Sample

Summer Music is a warm delight dedicated to Delius whose music it resembles; someone's Walk to the Paradise Garden surely echoes through at 7.10 onwards.

Sample

Bax had written like this before in Spring Fire, Happy Forest and the Third Symphony.

And if you are not sure about getting this disc ... ? Well, if you already appreciate Vaughan Williams' Sixth, Szymanowski's Third, Sibelius's Fifth, Martinů's Fourth or Fifth, Nielsen's Fifth or Bax's November Woods or Fifth Symphony then go ahead and buy with confidence. Make no mistake this is an outstanding Bax recording containing some of the best-judged, violent and sensuous of interpretations.

Rob Barnett

 

 

 

 

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