Complete symphonies (1922-39)
Overture: Rogue’s Comedy (1936)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Recorded in Studio 7, BBC Broadcasting House,
Manchester, 4 January 2002 to 5 September 2003
CHANDOS CHAN 10122 (Five CD set)[355’28]
Review by Graham Parlett
When Vernon Handley recorded Bax’s Fourth Symphony with the Guildford Philharmonic in 1964 it was the first of his symphonies to have been recorded since Barbirolli’s pioneering version of the Third two decades earlier. Three years later Richard Itter issued Norman Del Mar’s fine recording of the Sixth on his Lyrita label, and then came the First and Second under Myer Fredman and the Fifth and Seventh under Raymond Leppard. Edward Downes’s RCA recording of No.3 had appeared in 1969, and then came Fredman’s ABC LP of the same symphony, though that was issued in Australia and never became generally available elsewhere. The advent of CD in 1983 certainly seems to have encouraged exploration of hitherto neglected repertoire, and it was in that same year that the first in Bryden Thomson’s cycle of the symphonies was issued by Chandos with the Ulster Orchestra; in fact his recording of No.4 and Tintagel was only the second CD of Bax’s works ever to be issued (the first being his Chandos collection of four tone-poems); he subsequently recorded the rest with the LPO. David Lloyd-Jones’s symphonic cycle began in 1997 with No.1 and was concluded in October 2003 with No.7. His no-nonsense approach to Bax was a valuable antidote to some of the more indulgent performances of other conductors over the years, and the cheap price of the Naxosrecordings encouraged many people to take a chance with a composer who may have been unfamiliar to them.
Nearly forty years after his Guildford recording of No.4, Vernon Handley was finally asked to record a complete cycle, something that Bax enthusiasts had been hoping for over the intervening years. It was originally intended that he should record only the Third for a free CD to be given away with an issue of the BBC Music Magazine and we have Brian Pidgeon, the BBC Philharmonic’s General Manager, to thank for his percipience in realizing that here was something special and that all the symphonies should be recorded to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death in October 1953.
Handley’s approach to the symphonies has changed over the years. As he says in the interview on the bonus disc that comes with this set, he takes the slow movements at a faster tempo than before, and indeed, except in the case of the Sixth Symphony, he takes generally faster tempi than other conductors in the outer movements as well. I certainly like the quick speed adopted by Handley for the opening movement of the First Symphony (1921-22). There is a sense of urgency not present in Thomson’s recording and, as in Lloyd-Jones’s version, he emphasizes the barbaric quality of the music (the tenor drum comes across ferociously here). Handley maintains a fast tempo for the development section, where other conductors exaggerate the slight modifications of tempo with which Bax liberally sprinkles the score. The speed in the closing page and a half is again faster than usual, but the menacing quality of the music comes across very well indeed.
The clarity of these new recordings is especially demonstrated at the start of the powerful slow movement. The side drum (with snares slack ‘as at a military funeral’, as Bax mentions in a programme note) and the two harps, playing semiquaver arpeggios, are clearly, but not obtrusively, audible. The build up to the first big climax is powerful and the fanfares clearer than in other recordings. Bax felt that this slow movement was one of his best, and nobody hearing this searing performance would be likely to contradict him. The opening of the finale, with its brassy, very Russian sound, strikes me as being at just the right tempo (some performances are too laboured here), and it leads into the Allegro vivace. Bax adds the rider ‘ma non troppo presto’, and again Handley has hit just the right tempo, I feel. At the moment on page 97 of the score when the first subject from the opening movement reappears, it can often sound as if the music is being pulled back, but Handley makes sure that the momentum is maintained despite the slower tempo indicated. The brazen Marcia trionfale, with which the symphony concludes, is played for all its worth, and the final page brings this tremendous score to a shattering conclusion with its blaring brass and tolling bells.
The opening pages of the Second Symphony (1924-5) are well played on all its recordings, but where Handley scores is in the main Allegro moderato. This again is faster than in previous versions, with playing that is very rhythmic and precise. In contrast, Handley adopts a slower tempo than Thomson and Lloyd-Jones for the second-subject group, which allows the music to breathe, though I think the quicker tempos favoured by other conductors have their merits too. Interesting to note that at the start of the slow movement, the harpist arpeggiates the repeated, Holstian chords where other performers play them unspread. The beautiful melody introduced by the violins on the third page is well articulated, and the shattering climax over an organ pedal is very powerful indeed. The final page, with its tremolando strings, horns chords and harp arpeggios (the latter clearer than usual) is spine-tingling.
In the finale, Handley again scores by the sheer attack in the Allegro feroce, which he takes at a cracking pace, faster than in any previous recording. It is this sense of ‘living dangerously’ that I especially like about Handley’s performances, in contrast to those of Bryden Thomson, who had a tendency to hold back rather than let rip. (I remember him saying that music should only be played at a speed at which the fastest notes could be articulated clearly.) The great climax, with organ at full throttle (to borrow Michael Oliver’s phrase) comes across powerfully here, though I miss those menacing descending phrases on the trombones just after figure 17, which David Lloyd-Jones turns into an almost snarling sound; here they are less prominent. But the epilogue is appropriately bleak, and for the first time in any recording I could clearly hear the strange dominant thirteenth on which the work ends (F and A on cellos, C and E on bassoons, with C below on basses): in other recordings one or other of the tone colours predominates, but here you can distinguish them. (Incidentally, Bax’s short score for this work shows that he originally intended to end it with a triumphal march, as in the First Symphony.)
I confess that I have not yet become accustomed to the tempo that Handley adopts for the opening of the Third Symphony (1928-9), which is faster than in any other performance I have ever heard, except the one conducted by Sir Henry Wood that can be found on Symposium CD 1150. In Barbirolli’s recording it sounds as if the woodwind are improvising their meandering lines; here it sounds as if everyone is in a hurry to get to the Allegro moderato. I am also puzzled why the harp chords on page 2 of the score are, as in Lloyd-Jones’s recording, played without being spread; and there is a slight discolouration of the first note of the strings’ entry with the liturgical theme at the fifth bar after figure 5. But thereafter Handley barely puts a foot wrong. The Allegro feroce, though not the fastest on record, certainly propels the music forward with a sense of purpose, and the famous passage for five solo violins on p.30 come across very well indeed. Handley refuses to linger over the Lento moderato, which begins with the strings, but it certainly does not sound at all rushed. Good horn solo a few pages later, and that dramatic moment at fig.38, where the timpani play the first three notes of the ‘motto’ theme, would have pleased Wood, who used to tell his timpanist to make them sound as if it were a horse kicking at a stable door! I have certainly never heard the harp’s ‘glissando in four quavers’ just before fig.39 sound so clear. The climactic anvil stroke (which appears in the manuscript score in Wood’s handwriting, Bax originally having written a cymbal clash) is by far the best I have ever heard: it often sounds as if someone in the percussion section has accidentally dropped a small metallic object on the floor; here it comes across as a resounding thwack. The rest of the movement is brilliantly played. If I were a conductor, I might have taken the Allegro coda a little faster (as David Lloyd-Jones does) but Handley certainly brings this vast movement to an exciting close.
The slow movement is all that it should be, with very good solos from the horn and trumpet on the first two pages, a sense of rapt concentration over the next few pages, a powerful climax towards the end, and a suitably desolate ending with sensitive playing from the principal bassoonist, Bax enthusiast David Chatwin, who, as a student thirty-two years earlier, conducted the first performance of the tone-poem, Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan, at the RCM, with Ken Russell in the audience; this was around the time that Russell was working on his film The Devils and was becoming interested in Bax’s music; he later sponsored the Lyrita recordings of the First and Second Symphonies.
The third movement gets off to a cracking start. On a first hearing I wished that the tenor drum were a little more prominent, but it is after all marked ‘ad lib’ in the score and with the dynamic p against the mf of the clarinets and violas, so it is obvious that Bax wanted it to be subsidiary to the tune. After the great fanfare on p.91, there is a più mosso, with the additional indication ‘feroce’, and here I felt that Handley was holding back a little; or maybe it was because I am used to conductors taking this section at a faster tempo. The climax before the epilogue is very well managed, and the epilogue itself sensitively played but without being over-expressive. Handley tells us in his interview that he finds Barbirolli’s performance ‘too beautiful’ here. This is not a problem that I have ever encountered with it, but nonetheless Handley’s more straightforward account lacks nothing in poise and a deep a sense of tranquillity. Perhaps the horn solo on the last page begins a little too loudly, but the final bars are as moving as they should be.
When I first heard the opening of the Fourth Symphony(1931) from David Lloyd-Jones I was bowled over by its sense of forward momentum and a feeling that powerful forces were being unleashed. Handley’s opening is quite similar (a trifle slower) but it has to be said that the greater depth of the recording makes it sound even more bracing. The third trombone’s entry at bar 4 registers very clearly here, as do the organ chords on p.2. Handley succeeds very well indeed in holding the long first movement together, and the final pages are most exhilarating, with Handley making less than other conductors of the largamente. I have always found the second movement of No.4 the least appealing of Bax’s symphonic slow movements, but in this new recording I was caught up in his unique sound-world from the very first bars. Fine trumpet solo near the start, and as in his earlier recording (and like Thomson but not Lloyd-Jones) Handley gets the clarinet just after fig.23 to play the second written E natural (sounding C sharp) instead of the E flat that is written in the published score (and also in the manuscript). I greatly enjoyed the third movement, and especially the Allegro scherzando at fig.22, which Handley takes faster and with a lighter touch than previous conductors. The final pages are again quicker than we usually hear, but that is in keeping with the rest of his interpretation.
Handley’s liking for fast speeds is again in evidence at the start of the Fifth Symphony (1932), but here (unlike the Third) I feel that this is all to the good. The playing of the introduction and the build up to the Allegro con fuoco are tremendously exciting, though around the third bar before fig.6 there is an ensemble problem (the only one I’ve noticed in the whole boxed set), with the second violins on the right not quite together with the horns. No matter; it has gone as soon as you notice it. I love the way Handley keeps this music moving forward; very important in this movement, I feel, where there are so many rapid changes of mood. The sheer beauty of the playing around figs.24 and 25 is quite extraordinary.
The opening of the slow movement is played at a steady pace, and Bax’s triadic brass fanfares, set against tremolando strings, have never sounded so majestic. The wonderful, resonant sound of the BBC Philharmonic’s lower strings that follow comes across marvellously in this recording, as does the brazen climax on p.79, with the side drum for once playing together with the brass (in most performances it is a quaver behind here owing to a mistake in the printed parts). The stark flourish for brass and timpani on p.89 following the tuba solo is also much clearer and emphatic than in previous recordings, and, unlike other conductors, Handley is meticulous in getting the clarinet and trumpet at fig.16 to articulate their semiquavers, so that they sound distinct from the bassoons’ quavers.
After the liturgical theme in fourths on the first page of the finale, Handley sets a furious pace for the ensuing, highly rhythmic Allegro, and the orchestra responds with playing of tremendous panache and immaculate precision. Following the darker slow section in the middle and the return to the fast music, Handley builds up a tremendous climax leading into the Epilogue, which starts serenely with an ostinato in the bass and the liturgical theme on clarinets and strings, and here Handley’s preference for having the second violins on the right pays off, with their counter-melody much clearer than in previous recordings. The build-up to the grandiose final pages is very well managed, and the ending, with swirling woodwind and strings against the brass chorale, sounds tremendous. This is undoubtedly the best performance of Bax’s Fifth Symphony I have ever heard.
In his interview, Handley confesses that the Sixth Symphony (1934-5) is his favourite and points out that many people regards it as his masterpiece. The opening pages, with that grinding ostinato in the bass and those stark wind chords above them, come across very well. Like Del Mar and Lloyd-Jones, Handley follows the printed score in placing the third cymbal clash in the final bar before the Allegro con fuoco and correcting the second clash by moving it to the preceding bar (the printed score is obviously wrong here). But Bax’s manuscript confirms that he actually wrote the third clash on the penultimate bar, and this is what Bryden Thomson plays in his recording. However, I remember Christopher Whelen telling me that when he was rehearsing the work in the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth , with Bax himself by his side, the composer agreed that the third clash should indeed be in the bar before the Allegro. It is difficult to decide which is the better: Bax’s original thought (as played by Thomson) or his afterthought (or perhaps an incorrect recollection of what he had actually written in the manuscript). I confess that I found the Allegro con fuoco itself just a little too earthbound; Bax has written ‘non pesante’ against the main theme, but it sounds too heavy and lacking in momentum. The rest of the movement, however, is very well played, though I think Lloyd-Jones has a more exciting conclusion.
The slow movement, in contrast, is played faster than in previous recordings, and I found that I soon became used to the tempo. The slow march starting on p.69, which Lewis Foreman has likened to a ‘procession of ghosts’, certainly has an unearthly feel to it. I note, without any particular feelings on the matter, that Handley instructs the tambourine player to continue his repetitions beyond what Bax indicated in the manuscript or what is misprinted in the score. There always seems to have been confusion about this point, and I believe that the original printed tambourine part had nothing at all in this passage. It may be recalled that Lloyd-Jones, in an note to hisNaxos recording, mentioned that he had omitted the tambourine part here altogether, though in fact it can be heard on disc (a different take having presumably been used without his knowledge). Handley also omitted the tambourine part in his performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic a few years ago.
John Bradbury, another of the BBC Philharmonic’s Bax enthusiasts, plays the opening clarinet solo of the third movement to perfection, and the rest of the Introduction is also beautifully managed, especially the strings at fig.3. The transition to the Scherzo is also very well done, and the opening bassoon solo is clearer than in the Naxosrecording. Handley’s tempo for the Scherzo is slower than Lloyd-Jones’s but lacks nothing in rhythmic drive. When it comes to the slower Trio, I have always felt that DelMar manages to choose just the right tempo here. The other recordings, including this new one, are a little lethargic for my taste; but this is all a matter of opinion, and other listeners may prefer the slow speed adopted here. Handley does not have the sheer excitement that I find in Lloyd-Jones’s working up to the big climax, but the climax itself, with the liturgical theme blared out by the trumpets, is better, with the upper notes of the liturgical theme clearer than on the Naxos recording. That horrendously difficult solo for trumpet at fig.37, where the poor player is expected to descend from a top C to the very bottom of his compass in a few bars playing piano and legato, is well managed (on the Naxos CD the player has to stop for breath). The Epilogue, with its horn solo and divided strings, is beautifully played, and the tenor drum’s sinister tapping on p.125 of the score is perfectly articulated.
Vernon Handley crowns his cycle with what is, on balance, the best performance of the Seventh Symphony (1938-9) that I have heard – and there have been some very fine performances over the years, from Downes’s two broadcasts in the 1980s to Thomson’s Chandos recording and David Lloyd-Jones’s for Naxos. The opening is fairly steady but the clarity of the sound enables the listener to hear details that are not apparent in other recordings, such as the harp’s rapidly repeated notes starting at fig.1 and those delightful downward arpeggios on p.84, which go for nothing in other recordings. I also especially like the timpani’s dramatic contributions at fig.26 and just after.
Somebody (I forget who) once remarked that the slow movement of No.7 was a dud. Well, these things are a matter of opinion, but there are certainly no real duds in any of the performances of it that have been recorded. I always felt that Thomson, in particular, was at his best here, but Handley’s performance is in some respects even better. The final bars are especially well done. The finale begins with what Bax described as ‘a real 18FORTY Romantic wallow’, and this is precisely what he gets from Handley. Unlike other conductors, who feel that the tempo of the ensuing Theme and Variations should relate to that of the introduction (the new crotchet equalling the previous minim), Handley begins it at a faster speed. For the Epilogue Handley instructed the players not to use rubato, and the tempo for this reason sounds a trifle faster than in, say, Thomson’s recording; but the solo playing is wonderful and the ending is as finely managed as I have ever heard.
The symphonies in this cycle are coupled two to a CD as follows: 1 and 3, 2 and 4, and 5 and 6. No.7 shares a disc with the first issued performance of the overture Rogue’s Comedy (1936) and Bax’s most famous work, Tintagel (1917-19). In 1994 Handley made a recording for Lyrita with the LPO of three of Bax’s then unrecorded overtures:Rogue’s Comedy, Overture to Adventure and Work in Progress. These were intended as couplings for a proposed CD reissue of Del Mar’s performance of No.6. But, alas!, as we all know, nothing has been issued by Richard Itter for several years, and these fine performances have never been released. The Overture to Adventure was recorded again in 1998, this time by the Munich Symphony Orchestra under Douglas Bostock for the Classico label, and now at last Handley gives us a new recording of Rogue’s Comedy. Unlike its close cousin, the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy (1930), this score was never published and has probably received no more than three performances since the world première under Hamilton Harty in 1936. It shows Bax at his most unbuttoned, and the BBC Philharmonic play it with tremendous gusto.
The overture is followed by a magnificent performance of Tintagel. Handley has conducted this work innumerable times over the years (and quite a few times in 2003 alone) and he really knows the score inside out. This shows in the exemplary pacing throughout, the outer sections being broader than in many other recordings (of which there have been no fewer than twelve all told). The return of the Big Tune on the horns on p.46 of the score is a thrilling moment. I hesitate to say that this is definitely the best performance I have ever heard (Bax himself thought that Tintagel was nearly always well played on account of its ‘broad lines’), but it is probably the performance that I shall turn to most often. The fifth disc in this set is taken up with an hour-long interview with Vernon Handley by Andrew McGregor, and Lewis Foreman’s notes also include another interview with the conductor.
In summing up this splendid boxed set, I should say that the performances are all outstanding and that Vernon Handley’s interpretations are, in most cases, the best yet recorded. It is possible to point to specific passages and say that the timpani in such-and-such a recording are crisper there, or that those few bars sound more convincing under such-and-such a conductor (and I think that, taken as a whole, David Lloyd-Jones’s performances offer the greatest challenge to Handley). But these minor quibbles pale into insignificance compared with the overall achievement. The quality of the recordings really is superb, and Stephen Rinker is to be congratulated on having provided such a lifelike sound with great depth, clarity and warmth; and how good it is to be able to hear Bax’s intricate harp parts for a change (a drawback of the Naxosset). One of his colleagues jokingly remarked at a recording session that the symphonies would be coming out in ‘Glorious Rinker Sound’ – and he was absolutely right. Congratulations also to producer Mike George, who has done a marvellous job in fitting all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, and to Brian Pidgeon, who was instrumental in getting this project off the ground in the first place. Grateful thanks to Chandos too for having the courage to issue it when they already had another cycle in their catalogue. But the final vote of thanks must go to the incomparable Vernon Handley. His Bax cycle has been a long time in coming, but it has proved well worth the wait.
Review by Richard R. Adams
“The question of Bax…is a question of bothering – bothering to look at and study the scores. He must, in the nature of things, eventually find his ideal interpreter.”
At the time Christopher Whelen wrote that statement in 1970, it must have appeared that Bax had few if any supporters. Most of Bax’s ardent champions were either dead or near death. Few of the up-and-coming British conductors were showing much enthusiasm toward Bax except perhaps Norman Del Mar, Maurice Handford and Vernon Handley. Handley and Del Mar each had a recording of a Bax symphony to his credit by 1970 but when in 1971 Lyrita decided to continue its Bax symphony cycle, they chose a conductor with almost no history of performing Bax’s music. Raymond Leppard conducted the final two recordings in that cycle and his Baxian credentials were a little more established as he had played a lot of Bax’s piano and chamber works prior to conducting the symphonies. Handford and Del Mar did record a few Bax symphonies for BBC Radio 3 during the late 60s and early 70s but their efforts on Bax’s behalf were soon superseded by those of Vernon Handley. During the 70s and 80s, Handley emerged as Bax’s most committed champion and he recorded an impressive number of Bax’s orchestral works for BBC Radio 3. He also managed the occasional concert performance but invitations to record Bax’s music commercially never came.
It’s well known that when Chandos decided to embark on a Bax series in the 1980s, they chose house conductor Bryden Thomson rather than Vernon Handley, who at that time was closely associated with EMI. Thomson was not that familiar with Bax’s music when he started his cycle but he succeeded brilliantly in his first few recordings with the Ulster Orchestra. When he began recording the symphonies with the London Philharmonic, his performances became more mannered and heavy and the sound of the recordings more reverberant and harsh. His Chandos recordings of the symphonies have beautiful moments but aren’t very successful as a whole and I personally find them very difficult to listen to with the exception of the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies.
Handley came very close to recording a complete Bax set for EMI Eminence. His recordings of Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams had won many accolades and as a reward for his sterling work, EMI invited him to record Bax. Unfortunately, a shake-up in the management at EMI nixed those plans and the set never occurred. Around that same time, Handley was approached by Naxos to record a Bax cycle but he had to decline due to his commitment to record the symphonies for EMI. By the time the EMI deal fell through, Naxos had already offered the project to David Lloyd-Jones who went on to record a complete cycle that only just concluded with the release last month(October 2003) of the Seventh Symphony. Following the sluggish Thomson set, the Lloyd-Jones recordings came as a breath of very fresh air. Lloyd-Jones’s leaner and more urgent approach to Bax challenged many critics’ assumptions that Bax’s symphonies are rhapsodic and structurally unsound. In fact, the Lloyd-Jones recordings brought about a reappraisal of Bax that cannot be overestimated. While some have criticized the Naxos recordings for the sterile sound or even Lloyd-Jones’s performances for lacking interpretive flair, it should also be kept in mind that these recordings have done more to introduce Bax to a wider audience and in effect, make the new Handley set possible.
The Vernon Handley set came about thanks primarily to the General Manager of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Brian Pidgeon. Handley had been invited to record Bax’s Third Symphony and Tintagel with the BBC Philharmonic and those recordings were to be released as a companion disc to the October 2003 BBC Music Magazine issue honoring the 50th anniversary of Bax’s death. Pidgeon attended the recordings sessions and was so impressed with Handley’s performances that he proposed to the BBC that Handley be invited to record the entire set for broadcast on Radio 3. At the same time he approached Chandos with an invitation to release the recordings and remarkably, both the BBC and Chandos gave the go ahead to the project. I suspect the success of theNaxos series encouraged them to proceed. Both Chandos and BBC wanted to broadcast and release the recordings in time for last month’s anniversary so a very short recording schedule was planned. Handley recorded the remaining six symphonies and the Rogue’s Comedy Overture in less than nine months time. The First and Sixth Symphonies were recorded in September following a highly acclaimed public performance by Handley and the BBC Philharmonic of both symphonies. The Manchester BBC team as well as Chandos rushed the completed recordings into production and the set was released in mid October 2003. So finally, we have our Vernon Handley Bax set. Has the wait been worth it? I can honestly say: even more than I imagined.
What sets these recordings apart from those of Thomson, Lloyd-Jones and the partialLyrita set is that here we have a master conductor, at the absolute height of his powers interpreting music that he loves passionately. While Thomson, Fredman, Leppard and Lloyd-Jones are all very fine conductors and certainly did their best by Bax, they were not in any way specialists in his music before making their recordings and their performances by-and-large lack the authority that is so characteristic of these new recordings. Hearing Handley in this music has been a revelation in the way that he is able to express so much affection for the music while at the same time maintaining a very tight and steady control of the tempo. I have no hesitation in recommending the new Handley performances over all the competition in all but one of the symphonies and there the competition is rather close. Apart from the performances themselves, these new recordings absolutely trounce the competition in terms of the extraordinary quality of the sound (a weakness in the Thomson set) and the orchestral playing (a weakness in the Lloyd-Jones set…those RSNO strings just can’t match the lush sound produced by their colleagues in the BBC Phil). BBC sound engineer Stephen Rinker has done an amazing job capturing all the detail of the playing in a very open and warm acoustic. The immediacy of the sound truly is startling. Not since the classical Lyrita recordings of the 70s has Bax been so well served sonically.
What follows is my own subjective assessment of how these new Handley recordings compare with earlier recordings of each of the symphonies:
Symphony No. 1 – Here Handley absolutely annihilates the competition. This new recording is one the great glories of the set and I suspect it will go a long way in rehabilitating the reputation of this symphony, even among ardent Baxians. The problem has always been in the rather bombastic final movement that in some performances doesn’t follow naturally after the overwhelming ferocity and tragedy of the first two movements. Handley’s performance of the last movement has a good deal more weight and majesty about it as well as a sparkling energy that comes from Handley’s scrupulous attention to dynamics. For once it doesn’t come across as an afterthought but rather as a triumphal conclusion to a battle hard fought. Thomson is also very good in this movement but his fondness for frequent ritenutos distorts the first movement all out of shape. Fredman’s premiere recording on Lyrita is extremely well recorded and played but seems just a little too clean and efficient for this extremely dramatic music. I’m very fond of the Lloyd-Jones interpretation on Naxos but here his engineers really let him down and the recording is just too aggressive and bright to be enjoyed on a regular basis. And while Lloyd-Jones certainly matches Handley in terms of visceral power, he doesn’t allow for the same sort of expressive playing that Handley and the BBC Phil manage. Theirs is the more personal and involving performance and in sound that is absolutely state-of-the-art.
Symphony No.2 – My standard reference recording for this great masterwork has always been Myer Fredman’s Lyrita recording from the early 1970s. For one thing, it is brilliantly recorded and for the most part, brilliantly played by the London Philharmonic. Things do get a little sticky in the lead up to the big climax in the second movement but considering the time restraints this recording was made under, it is a very successful production. Bryden Thomson’s interpretation is typically expansive and he emphasizes the dark undercurrents of the score but does so at the expense of any forward momentum. His performance literally plods along in the final movement and some of the playing by the London Philharmonic is very untidy. His epilogue is certainly the bleakest on record and I have to commend the performance for some very individual touches but overall it is just too heavy and flat. David Lloyd-Jones’s interpretation is a very fine one but his RSNO simply can’t create the huge sonorous sound that is required for this symphony and much of the blame there is the very dry recording. The new Handley easily surpasses both the Thomson and Lloyd-Jones accounts and actually the old Fredman too although I wouldn’t want to be without it. Handley’s performance is the most tempestuous, expressive and concentrated but I do miss a little of the grave power Fredman achieves in the final movement as a result of taking it just a tad slower. However, Fredman’s performance of the epilogue isn’t nearly as ominous as Handley’s (who is more measured here) and overall I would say Handley’s is now the definitive account.
Symphony No. 3 – Here the competition is a little tougher but even so Handley sweeps the board. His new recording is a revelation and easily the best since the Barbirolli and if I had to chose between them, I’d chose the new Handley for its obviously superior sound and orchestral playing and for an even more dramatic performance. The Third Symphony isn’t the easiest symphony to pull off, evidently. Edward Downes secures fine playing from the London Symphony Orchestra in his 1969 RCA recording but the performance never catches fire. I can’t even listen to the Thomson recording because it is just too slow and the symphony sounds disjointed in his hands. The Lloyd-Jones is an improvement but it strikes me as just a bit under characterized. That certainly can’t be said of the old Barbirolli but Handley’s new recording is every bit as affectionate and warm while at the same time being tauter and more brilliant. Admittedly, it has taken me a little while to get used to the very fast opening tempo of the first movement. The great interweave of the theme among the woodwinds is very stark and really moves quickly. By the time we reach the Allegro Moderato, the music is really moving along quickly, but not frantically – and that is an important point. What I like most about this performance is that there is always a sense of power in reserve and when Handley has to calls upon that power such as in the coda to the first movement, the impact is overwhelming. The glorious second movement is very expressively phrased but I would have liked a more pronounced harp during the magical piu Lento section of this movement – but in every other way, the performance and recording couldn’t be improved upon. The third movement opens with terrific force and the entire movement is very urgently and steadily paced. The great epilogue is the best on record, no question. It is grave and otherworldly rather than sweet and sentimental – and really quite chilling as a result. This recording is truly a tremendous achievement.
Symphony No. 4 – The most problematic of Bax’s symphonies???? That has certainly been its reputation but I believe that assertion is unjust. It is a joyful, brilliant, exhilarating and at times very moving symphony that requires the very best playing and most sensitive conducting of the entire set to come off properly. Certainly, the first movement can sound very rhapsodic if it isn’t paced with the right amount of control. My chief complaint about the otherwise brilliant Thomson recording is that he seems to start and stop a lot in that movement and it all sounds disjointed. I quite like the Lloyd-Jones on Naxos as he’s very disciplined and he really keeps things moving but in comparison with the new Handley, he’s a little poker faced and a lot less expressive. The new Handley is unquestionably the greatest recording of this fine symphony although I do wish he hadn’t taken the coda to the final movement quite so fast. It is thrilling but perhaps it doesn’t have the overwhelming grandeur that his semi-amateur Guildford Philharmonic forces were able to summon in his earlier 1964 recording. Of course, that recording can’t compete with Handley’s remake in terms of playing or sound but it is a remarkable interpretation and I’m not sure Handley has improved upon it, at least in the last movement. Still, the new Handley is stunning and I can’t imagine it being improved upon any time soon.
Symphony No. 5 – Very surprisingly, this fascinating but still rather difficult symphony has consistently brought out the very best from all its interpreters. This is the one Bax symphony that has never received a bad performance, in my opinion. Raymond Leppard’s premiere recording on Lyrita is outstanding. It is very naturally and sensitively paced as well as brilliantly played and recorded and Leppard has always been the most successful in avoiding any strain or bombast in the epilogue of the last movement. Bryden Thomson on Chandos isn’t nearly as successful in the epilogue. His pulse is way too slow there but that is the only blemish on an otherwise brilliant performance, easily the best from his entire set. Certainly, his is the most expressive and personal performance up until now. The Fifth Symphony also brings out the best in Lloyd-Jones although here again, the playing and recording do let him down, particularly in the middle movement, which sounds very scrappy at some points. As fine as all these recordings are, they pale in comparison to the new Handley, perhaps the highlight of his set. Again, Handley’s urgent but very expressive phrasing pays huge dividends, particularly in the first movement, which sounds much more cogent and exciting than usual. His performance of the second movement is darker and more brooding while the last movement is also the fastest on record but again, not frantic and he does allow the tempo to slow down enough so that the glorious chorales do sound majestic. Handley is as successful as Leppard in navigating his way from the last chorale into the epilogue and his performances ends on an even more triumphant note. This is an astonishing performance that should convince everyone that the Fifth Symphony is as great a symphony as Bax ever wrote.
Symphony No. 6 – Arguably Bax’s masterpiece and not only Handley’s favorite Bax symphony but also among his favorite of all pieces of music. You would suspect then that his performance would be something very special and indeed it is. I predict this performance will become the standard reference for many people but I have to admit that I am still very partial to Norman Del Mar’s classic Lyrita recording from the late 1960s, despite its spot-lit sound. It may be the case of a very personal and romantic performance imprinting itself so vividly into my imagination that no other performance quite sounds right. Certainly the old Thomson doesn’t challenge it primarily because the reverberant recording is so bad but also because his pacing in the middle movement and the scherzo and the huge climax of the last movement is so lethargic that the symphony loses most of its power. I find his performance very underwhelming. I prefer Douglas Bostock’s interpretation but his Munich players are overwhelmed by the demands of this symphony and they’re recorded in a very dry acoustic. David Lloyd-Jones’ recording on Naxos is extremely fine and actually quite similar to the new Handley although Lloyd-Jones is a little faster in the first movement. His may even be the most exciting of all in the huge climax and here he is assisted with better than average Naxos sound and an RSNO that sounds absolutely inspired. True, they still have a small string sound but the wind playing is very fine. I love Handley’s slightly slower tempo for the first movement because he makes it sound so dark and barbaric. His pacing for the second movement is certainly fast but not much more so than Lloyd-Jones and the faster tempo work very well. He also benefits from John Bradbury’s extraordinary clarinet solo in the opening of the third movement. Admittedly, I’m not yet comfortable with the slight acceleration in tempo he takes after figure 34 where the direction is Poco and then Molto largamente (for a broadening effect) as it seems to undercut the intense majesty of the music in that section but that’s a very minor quibble. Handley’s way with the epilogue is extraordinary. It’s not as slow or serene as some others but again he manages to create an otherworldly atmosphere that is deeply profound. I have no hesitation in recommending the new Handley as the definitive available choice due to the superiority of the playing and recording as well as Handley’s many insights into the score but I can’t say it replaces Del Mar’s performance as my absolute favourite. For me, Del Mar remains the best at being able to combine the relentless energy and logic of Handley and Lloyd-Jones with a kind of haunting magic and beauty that is unique to his account. This is very subjective of course, but it is theDel Mar that moves me the most deeply and convinces me that this symphony is among the greatest masterworks of music. Unfortunately, the Del Mar is not available unless you are lucky enough to have it on LP. Until it finds its way onto CD, the new Handley will serve as my reference but the Lloyd-Jones is just about as good.
Symphony No. 7 – My sentimental favorite of all Bax symphonies (as it was the first I ever heard) and judging from Handley’s performance, I suspect he has a special place in his heart for it as well because his performance is so affectionate and sensitive. It has all the magic and beauty that this great symphony requires and easily surpasses all the competition. That said, Thomson is very good in this symphony too and I love his way with the opening movement. He’s a little too slow in the second movement and perhaps a bit too dry eyed in the glorious epilogue but I still enjoy hearing the Thomson from time to time. I love the old Leppard recording on Lyrita but Handley’s is even more imaginative and engaging in the outer movements. The great glory of the Leppard recording has always been the lento middle movement and I’m not sure Handley surpasses him but he certainly matches him at tempos a little faster and a coda that is just as moving. I was terribly disappointed with the new Lloyd-Jones on Naxos . Something went terribly wrong with the recording as it’s just awful and even the performance sounds coarse — a particularly inappropriate sound for this beautiful symphony. Handley again becomes my new reference in this work.
Tintagel and Rogue’s Comedy Overture – The only other conductor to ever have recorded the Rogue’s Comedy Overture is Handley himself – for Lyrita but never released. I can’t imagine a more engaging or coherent performance than this new recording. It’s a very likable piece and one that shows off the brilliance of the BBC Philharmonic players. This is Handley’s first recording of Tintagel and here the competition is very stiff. The top contenders are obviously Goossens in a very fast and passionate interpretation that is soon to be re-released on Symposium, the Decca Boult from the mid 1950s (a far superior performance to his rather leaden Lyrita account but not nearly as well recorded), the EMI Barbirolli from the mid 1960s and the very fine Thomson with the Ulster Orchestra on Chandos. Handley’s performance is actually unlike any of them in that he is broader and more atmospheric and his is unquestionably the most beautiful performance of Tintagel I’ve ever heard and I would rank it along side the Barbirolli as my favourite. Both interpretations complement each other because both approaches are so different but in their ways equally effective.
In addition to the music, we also get an hour-long audio interview with the great Maestro himself by BBC Radio 3 commentator Andrew McGregor as well as a written interview with him by Lewis Foreman in the liner notes. Bax has never had a more articulate or knowledgeable champion and it is a pleasure to hear and read his comments. I am very grateful to the BBC and Chandos for making the audio interview available. It will remain an important historical document on the dedication and understanding of a master musician on behalf of a great composer. Handley is indeed the conductor that Whelen was hoping would come about and rescue Bax from obscurity. That it took nearly 30 years for these recordings to come about only indicates how long it can sometimes take to revive a reputation. I’m just grateful that Handley has at last been invited to record these symphonies that he loves so much. I have no hesitation to compare this set of recordings in terms of importance or musical greatness with the definitive editions of Beecham’s Delius, Barbirolli’s Elgar, Boult’s Vaughan Williams, Kempe’s Strauss, Karajan’s Bruckner, Bernstein’s Mahler, Martinon’s Ravel, etc – these Bax performances are truly that great. Now, will someone please invite Handley to record November Woods, Garden of Fand and the Winter Legends!
Review by Richard. R. Adams
Review by Rob Barnett
When the history of recording and its role in the renaissance or sustenance of composer’s music comes to be written we will look back on the birth of the CD as a decisive moment in time. We did not know it back then but when the medium arrived in 1983 it was to prove the confident and robust carrier for an ambitious extension of the repertoire. Who could have predicted then that twenty years later we would have complete cycles of the symphonies of Miaskovsky, Schmidt, Sauguet, Milhaud, Searle, Braga-Santos, Holmboe, Simpson and Moyzes? And now we have the third complete cycle of Bax symphonies and two of them from the same company: Chandos.
Who else in music sounds like Bax? Although you will find moments in Moeran, Bainton, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Sainton and Hadley in the UK and further afield in Rachmaninov, early Stravinsky, Rimsky, Miaskovsky and Ivanovs where similarities arise Bax remains utterly personal and distinctive. His personality is as immediately present as that of Martinů, Sibelius or Janáček. With Chandos’s mid-price set Bax can truly be said to have arrived. Anyone who considers themselves an enthusiast of British music must have this set.
Bax has for far too long stood in the shadow of other symphonists. In the British stakes the long received wisdom is that Bax’s Seven must stand aside in favour of Vaughan Williams’ Nine. How much of this has to do with birth years or the perceptions of the English psyche I am not sure but these and other factors have played their role in suppressing curiosity and ultimately enthusiasm. Vaughan Williams centenary celebrations came before Bax’s with much deserved fanfaring in 1972. Bax had to wait until 1983. Given what has happened it is just as well that they did not share birth and death dates for otherwise, in superficial media terms, Bax’s fame would have been buried deep. So far as psyche is concerned RVW’s mysticism and extreme beauty, despite his agnosticism, has a Protestant restraint about it. Vaughan Williams’ music has plenty of ecstatic moments (witness the Fifth Symphony, the great tune in The Wasps overture, the serenading episodes in Sir John in Love, the Tallis Fantasia, the swallow-fall vocal gliss at the end of Serenade to Music, the peaceful violin cantilena in the Sixth Symphony, the Dirge for Two Veterans in Dona Nobis Pacem and many more) but this is a spiritual ecstasy rather than sensual or erotic abandon.
Bax’s music represents the other side of the coin. His music speaks of the expression and fusion of extremes of emotion, fantasy and passion. Bax’s list is just as long as Vaughan Williams’: the woodland episode from The Happy Forest; the yearning theme from November Woods; the dew-dripping fragile magic of Spring Fire; the thunderous power of the Sixth Symphony as well as its ineffable and enchanted epilogue; the up-tilted scenic fanfares of the second movement of the Fifth Symphony; the dazzling breakers of the Fourth Symphony; the Sheherazade theme in the first movement of the Violin Concerto; the love song that crowns the second movement of the Second Symphony; the trilled and curvaceous farewell of the Seventh Symphony’s finale; the visceral excitement of The Tale the Pine Trees Knew; the stormy restless crippled beauty of the Piano Quintet (a symphony manqué if ever there was one); the violence and snowy beauty of Winter Legends and the First Northern Ballad. The list is as long as that of Vaughan Williams.
The issue is not one of superiority. It is a matter of asserting the idiomatic and very personal contribution that Bax has made to music. It is different from that of virtually any other composer. It merits a place in the listening plans of any music lover and once it has asserted its grip it will not let relent. Bax’s significance is not simply a matter of musical history but is to be found in the passionate eloquence of his voice – his expressive ability to communicate with modern audiences about states of abandon; about melody and about a beauty that surprises by its power to shake the listener, to excite and to move to tears. The difficulty with this sort of ‘purple’ is that it may suggest music that is garrulous and meandering. In fact Bax rarely sinks into ‘warbling rhapsody’ (though some miscalculated performances have projected him in this way – notable Downes in his 1969 LSO/RCA recording). He is no Delius, no Scriabin, no Sorabji. I do not mean to imply that these composers ‘rhapsodise’ rather that Bax, while meditative, is also impulsive and propulsive. He is elaborate in his orchestral textures but when well calculated and recorded (as they are in this Handley set) these do not coagulate but have a diaphanous glow. Bax is also good at fury and fear, loss and consolation – hard-won, climactic music thrusting and dynamic. Handley commented many years ago about the dangers of playing Bax as if he were Rachmaninov or Strauss – two composers to which his music bears a passing resemblance. The key is in tempo and, as seasoned Baxians will hear, Handley now surprises us from time to time.
The set starts in the best possible fashion with a First that is extremely good. Before now Handley has spoken of the importance if finding and keeping in touch with the correct pulse in Bax. In this case his grip on that elusive quality hardly slackens through change after change. Bax’s opulent writing and orchestration encourages self- indulgence as the old Downes/LSO of the Third Symphony LP (RCA) showed. Handley both in this symphony and in the others shows a lifetime’s familiarity and wisdom in his choices although as we shall see some may surprise those of us who have imprinted on other readings (commercial and radio) including those of Norman Del Mar (1, 3, 6), Goossens (2), Handford (4), Leppard (3, 5, 7), Iain Whyte (4), Harry Newstone (an extraordinary radio b/c of 5), Leslie Head (2, 5, 7), Robinson (1, 5), Fredman (1-3), Sargent (3), Groves (6, 7) and Schwarz (3, 7).
I would not want to push this too far but there is a strong sense in this set of Handley discovering the spikiness, accelerations (listen to the Sacre-like speedings up in the first movement of the Second) and jagged crags in Bax’s music rather than the mellifluous, dreamy or curvaceous – not that he neglects the legato but he does not allow it to stifle the active counterbalancing elements. Handley is to Bax what Pinnock is to Handel; rediscovering the animus and pulse of the music where predecessors have emphasised the softer contours. Barbirolli, Downes and Thomson (also on Chandos, remarkably enough) tended to the languorous. Handley shares with Stanford Robinson ,Del Mar and Bostock (rather undermined by the thin-sounding Munich orchestra in his otherwise well-conceived ClassicO version) a sense of the excitement in Bax’s music. The other thing this set brings out is attributable in no small part to the Chandos engineers. Manchester ’s Studio 7 has always sounded vibrant and alive as the studio broadcasts since the 1980s have shown. Here the ambience as captured puts across the Russian habit adopted by Bax of juxtaposing glinting super-highs and profound depths – I have always suspected that Alexander Sveshnikov’s RSFSR Academic Russian Choir would have made a superb Mater Ora Filium – compare their 1960s performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers on Melodiya (now on the Korean label Yedang or Pipeline). There is the same rapture in the extremes although there the sepulchral basses impress most strongly. Bells, triangle and even anvil (try the Third Symphony’s first movement) ring out through the texture and deeper voices contrast for example the gut-wrenching double bass swell at the start of the Sixth, the tuba solo in the Fifth and the organ-underpinned sections of the Second and Fourth Symphonies (coincidentally grouped on CD2). The Handley ‘brilliants’ are treated with brightness and prominent eminence although as in the epilogues of the Third and the Sixth they are allowed to glow tactfully rather than ring out in assertive insensitivity.
This First is a market leader standing above what now seems the mood-neutral Lloyd-Jones version. Indeed there is a certain emotional coolness that afflicts the Naxosseries. Lloyd-Jones is never less than clear but he is at his unequivocal best in symphonies 4, 6 (possibly modelled on the Del Mar Lyrita recording?) and 7. The First was featured with the Sixth at the Manchester BBCPO/Handley concert on 3 October 2003 . It was given a breath-taking performance and I suspect many had cause to reassess it that night – I certainly did. In fact it rather put the Sixth in the shade on that occasion. The Fourth has been lucky on CD. Lloyd-Jones is magnificent and I would not want to take away from his reading in praising this. Handley’s reminded me often in exegesis of his 1960s conception of the piece from the Guildford Philharmonic. It has that same belligerent energy yet takes time to draw breath to take in the exuberant seascapes – in some ways like a Brangwyn canvas. It is a ‘big’ work but without strong symphonic structural credentials. Festive-idyllic rather like Bantock’s Pagan or Cyprus , Alfvén’s Fourth Symphony or perhaps Strauss’s Alpine Symphony – though with infinitely better melodic material, it sounds extremely well in this version. This version of the Fifth grows on you. By the time I had heard it for the fourth time its imaginative world began to communicate more effectively. The excitement and gaud of the two early symphonies (more Pohjola than Baba Yaga) is magnificently put across. Lloyd-Jones sounds curiously dispassionate – something that cannot be said of Leppard’s version on Lyrita (LP – not reissued) or the radio 1960s broadcast by Harry Newstone. This is all rather academic anyway as neither of these is on CD. The Thomson version is quite good and sounds well, I think although he is so weak in many other respects in his cycle. The Fifth belongs naturally in the same universe as the three Northern Ballads, Winter Legends (which I hope Handley will go onto record with John McCabe) and The Tale the Pine Trees Knew. The Sixth is a work that reminds us that Bax is as much of a colossus as Sibelius. If you know one of my monuments of recorded sound and interpretation – Mravinsky’s 1965 Leningrad version of the Sibelius Seventh Symphony – you will know what I am talking about here. Here Thomson is acceptable, Del Mar (still chained to LP) and Lloyd-Jones visionary. Handley and his orchestra produce an awesome performance from the thudding volatile opening to the wrenching worlds in collision of the finale to an epilogue that opens a fragile pristine wonderland to our minds – as powerful as the desolation of the finale RVW’s Sixth and Holst’s Egdon Heath but something of otherworldly enchanted beauty. Handley has the advantage over the Del Mar of being more naturally miked. Del Mar’s Lyrita engineers used close-up miking to produce some magical effects which one would never hear in the concert-hall. It remains superbly impressive but unnatural. Handley’s version of the Seventh is all splendour: warm and forward-moving. Perhaps it is too easy to read in non-existent things but I detect an air of repletion and satiated finality about this symphony. Here was a man who knew that the flame was irretrievably guttering but who mustered the oxygen of inspiration one last time. This is a grand canvas with no high drama instead a discursive meditation. The Symphony makes for an emotionally eloquent paraph to his symphonic career. Oddly I do not recall any talk of a spectral eighth. For Bax there was no Sibelian toying with an expectant media. Would it have been different if the musical world had been baying for another symphony? I doubt it. Thomson, Handley and Leppard contribute good Sevenths though only Leppard catches the crepuscular horizon-bound fluttering to fully magical effect. Handley by the way is nowhere near as quick as David Lloyd-Jones whose Naxosversion I enjoyed. Nevertheless Handley is completely convincing; this work rewardingly bears a range of interpretations. The most famous of the symphonies for reasons associated with Henry Wood’s loyalty to the work is the Third Symphony. Parts of Handley’s reading are faster than we are accustomed to but personally I find this a sympathetic quality. The Third has some extremely Russian moments especially in the first two movements and Handley drives this music forward like Svetlanov in his Rimsky and Balakirev recordings. In the epilogue in which Bax gazes with conscious-lost hypnotised fascination into a Celtic paradise Handley is a mite too fast for my taste but there is little in it and overall I rate this extremely highly. It is almost certainly the Symphony that Handley has conducted most often. He knows its every rush, scramble, breath and sigh.
This is not the first boxed set of all seven Bax symphonies. That honour goes to Bryden Thomson’s Chandos box (also still available for about the same price). It is however the first box where the series features a single conductor and a single orchestra. Remember that the Thomson series started auspiciously with a superbly exuberant Fourth Symphony recorded in vintage digital splendour with the Ulster Orchestra. Chandos then moved to the London Philharmonic developing a torpid tendency with sound quality to match; the recordings of symphonies 5, 6 and 7 were better. In Handley’s case there is no trace of torpor – extremely well judged. The rocking motion of the second movement of the Sixth Symphony was taken startlingly quick in the Manchester Studio 7 concert. Handley’s recorded version is not quite as quick.
In addition to being a first true intégrale this box delivers a first for Handley. He is the first conductor to have a second version of a Bax Symphony in the catalogue. His Revolution Records recording from 1964 of the Fourth (Guildford Philharmonic) is newly available on Concert Artists. It is there to compare in its still brightly lit immediacy with the grand sound-stage of the Chandos recording from December 2002. And while I am casting around for other ‘firsts’, I should note that the Handley box includes the world premiere recording of the cheeky and Bohemian flavoured Overture. This is not typical Bax but neither is it a Straussian effusion in the sense of the Picaresque Comedy Overture or the last movement of the Violin Concerto. The Rogues Comedy was included in the Manchester BBCPO studio concert which I attended on 3 October 2003 . Sitting in Studio 3 listening to this odd-ball piece I thought of Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Schweik. The music has his irrepressible impudence – Eulenspiegel with a Bohemian accent and an irreverent anarchic edginess. Once I had Bohemia in my mind I started noticing other things – a jollity I associate with Dvořák’s Carnival overture and the wind writing reminded me of Zdenek Fibich’s overture A Night in Karlstein and the Third Symphony (the latter joyously recorded on Supraphon by Karel Sejna; the former wonderfully done for the same label by Vaclav Smetacek but not yet on CD).
With this overture on disc there remain only the Overture to Adventure and the Work-in-Progress Overture to come. Both were also recorded by Handley/LPO with another version of Rogues Comedy. These still reside in Richard Itter’s Lyrita vaults along with much else.
In the esteem of the moderately well-informed musical public Bax remains a figure at the periphery. This set should help redress that. Bax’s Tintagel has a tenacious hold on the public consciousness. Beyond its intrinsic romantic attractions it has the virtue of holding the door open for the discovery of other Bax works. It keeps his name in the public consciousness. So many conductors have championed it: Downes, Handley, Boult, Thomson, Pritchard, Goossens, Bostock, Leppard, Atherton, Ajmone-Marsan, Schwarz, Gibson, Davis , Van Steen, Robinson, Lawrence , Handford, Mackerras, Willcocks and Tausky. Handley takes it as broadly and richly as has become the norm in recent years – circa 15 minutes. This is nothing like the 11.59 taken by Eugene Goossens in his 1928 recording. There is still room for the visceral excitement and imagination of the Goossens pacing which still sounds extremely effective even across the void of 75 years. The Goossens recording together with other early Bax recordings is on Symposium 1336 (soon to be reviewed here).
Received wisdom suggests that you might progress from Tintagel to the Third Symphony which has been lauded since its sustained succès d’estime with Wood and Barbirolli. In fact it is an elusive piece which might initially disappoint and put off the lieges loyal to Tintagel. Better yet listeners should try The Garden of Fand (superb version by Barbirolli on Dutton) or Boult’s thrawn and passionate November Woods – a reference recording if ever there was one (Lyrita SRCD231 unfortunately linked to his etiolated Fand, Mediterranean and Tintagel although with a superbly braw Northern Ballad No. 1) for an experience closer to Tintagel. One needs to launch out into symphonic waters. If you want trumpeting exuberance and celebration in your symphony then go for the Fourth. At its boisterous best it has the feel of Janáček’s Sinfoniettaand Kodály’s Peacock Variations. If you have Sibelian inclinations, and I would not want to over-stress the similarities (although they are there), then try the icy splendours and gaudy spectacle of the dynamic Fifth Symphony. The First Symphony has a decidedly Russian accent; not exclusively but certainly assertive in the mix. This is Bax still synthesising influences but the First is certainly a work that is fully satisfying if without the masterly transparency of orchestration found in the Third and Sixth Symphonies. The high romance of Tintagel is most closely approximated in the Second Symphony especially in the central movement which has a gift of a melody: a love song of indelibly memorable attainment. You can reach for parallels in the best of Tchaikovsky (say in the Fourth Symphony), in Rimsky’s Antar (every bit as good as Sheherazade) and in Stravinsky’s Firebird. This is flanked by movements that gloatingly hold open the door to some awesomely majestic Celtic Gehenna like a Kay Nielsen or Virgil Finlay illustration made flesh and blood, sea and cliff, gorge and tower. Again reach for parallels in the direction of Tchaikovsky – say Francesca da Rimini. Speaking of which, what a performance Mravinsky or Markevitch would have given of Bax’s Second! The Handley version of the Second Symphony is outstanding – though the work has been fortunate in some previous interpreters including Goossens (in the BBC studio in the 1950s) and Fredman on Lyrita (awaiting reissue with no real propsect of it ever happening).
This set is clearly intended as a ‘statement’. It is presented modestly but tastefully. It does not shout at you but the font and colour and texture bespeak a Baxian quality. The ‘look and feel’ is basic but stylish with all five discs presented in a card box or wallet in sleeves following the pattern set by Brilliant Classics (e.g. for the Barshai Shostakovich set). The box is in green leather-effect with gold lettering using the font adopted for Bax’s Chandos series from the 1980s onwards. Each CD is housed in a stiff card slip-case with just the disc number (in rather small type) on the sleeve rather than any indication of contents. These are listed in detail in the booklet and in outline on the rear of the box. Each sleeve has session photos of Handley and the orchestra. The booklet runs to 56 pages and is further packed with photos of the recording sessions. The booklet comprises a 12 page interview between Handley and Foreman. It is not the same 60+ minute interview as that recorded on CD5 between Handley and Andrew MacGregor. The CDs themselves are plainly presented. The layout is economical with two symphonies per CD except for the Seventh which keeps house with Tintagel and the overture.
To sum up then: superb sound and presentation. Good price; this could easily have been marketed at full price! Superb readings throughout with the pinnacles being symphonies 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7. Please do not read this as criticism of 3 and 6. It is a matter of shading in relation to other recordings some of which are unavailable anyway.
Hearing the symphonies is an adventure – a journey of the emotions in which you will constantly be surprised and delighted, impressed and, most importantly, moved. Bax shows himself to be a poet of the emotions who does not shy from violence, whole-hearted celebration, ecstatic absorption in beauty, sorrow and drama. You could not have a better starting place and destination than this epochal set.
BAX: Symphonies, all; Tintagel; Rogues Comedy Overture
BBC Philharmonic/ Vernon Handley
Chandos 10122 [5CD] 353 minutes
By Roger Hecht
Appears by the kind permission of
American Record Guide
The Issue (e.g. May/June 2004)
Toll Free Phone: 888-658-1907
Vernon Handley has long been considered our finest Bax interpreter. He recorded Bax for the BBC and taped some revelatory performances of Bax’s rarer works for Chandos. He has always wanted to record Bax’s symphonies on commercial discs and was the obvious candidate for the job. Yet until now the only Bax symphony Handley issued commercially was a poorly played and recorded Fourth with the Guildford Philharmonic in 1964. It wasn’t until he was in his 70s that he carried out the project he was born to undertake. What took so long?
The answer lies in irony and mischance. Though Handley had established some Baxian credentials by the 1960s, he was not engaged for Lyrita’s Bax symphony project that recorded all but the Third and Fourth. Instead, Norman Del Mar, Myer Fredman, and Raymond Leppard produced those classic, big dramatic readings in great sound. Handley might have been offered the first Chandos set, but his affiliation with EMI led the company to go with house conductor Bryden Thomson (July/Aug 1999). Most of those readings tended to be too romantic, with too much heaving and hauling and not much pace. EMI eventually planned a Bax symphony cycle with Handley, but management changes ended that enterprise. When Naxos approached Handley for its cycle, he was still tied to the EMI project, so the company turned to David Lloyd-Jones, whose lively, dynamic, well-structured recordings cleared a lot of cobwebs from Bax interpretation. At budget prices, they were an ideal introduction to works people might not otherwise have given a chance, but they were not the last word on Bax interpretation, depth, and refinement.
Handley’s chance evolved from an engagement by the BBC to lead the Third Symphony for a companion disc to BBC Music Magazine. BBC Philharmonic General Manager Brian Pidgeon was so impressed with the result that he asked the BBC to record all the Bax symphonies with Handley and Chandos to release them commercially. In that moment of serendipity, the right conductor, orchestra, recording company, and repertoire came together to produce our finest set of Bax symphonies for the 50th anniversary of Bax’s 1953 death.
[My thanks to good friend and Bax lover Richard Adams, as well as Bax expert Graham Parlett for much of the above material from Richard’s website, “www.arnoldbax.com“]
The viewpoint of this set is that of an older conductor with years of experience learning, leading, and loving these works. The performances usually sound right, even in spots that have been done differently but just as well or better by others. They also tell us a lot about Bax’s structures and scoring. In his interview on the companion disc with Andrew McGregor, Handley notes that the common misconception of Bax as a wallowing romantic took root in his own time, when his works were played by orchestras and conductors unfamiliar with the sound he was trying to create. They looked at the complex scores and all that chromaticism and deemed them “Strauss” or “Rachmaninoff”. Not so, says Handley. Bax knew exactly what he was doing in creating his sound world. His music is “simple structurally; simple formally”. His structural technique is one of “metamorphosis”, where the music develops out of small ideas. Handley uses faster speeds to underline these structures, and these speeds have the added benefit of meshing with Handley’s phrasing to create a natural flow. A bit faster or slower would sound awkward. As for Bax overscoring, Handley scoffs. Bax “is as good an orchestrator as any composer who has existed”, he insists. Indeed, I find these symphonies an endless array of clever voicings, ensemble, and “effects”, as Handley fondly refers to them. I find Bax’s use of muted trombones and odd woodwind ensembles fascinating, but everyone will have favorites. The solo writing for tuba, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, and trombone, as well as the usual suspects, is imaginative and idiomatic. Handley makes all this so clear that you will want to rethink these works after hearing these discs.
Despite the adage that there are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors, a conductor can do just so much with an ensemble, so it’s good to report that the BBC Philharmonic offers the best and most refined playing of the Bax symphony sets. The solos are marvelous. I have never heard Bax’s lush string chords sound so velvety. Woodwind choirs are rich and gleaming. The brass blends with a silvery sheen and no overblowing. The harps glisten. The percussion gets its due. The tenor drum has startling, menacing force, the piano real tonal definition (in 2), and the organ stunning power and richness (2 and 4). The celeste and all the bell instruments tinkle like starlight. Nowhere is the Third Symphony’s anvil more startling. In comparison, the London Philharmonic for Lyrita is not as refined and transparent but makes up for it with its power, panache, and brilliance. The Naxos orchestras produce exciting results, but lack proper weight and finesse. The Ulster Orchestra was marvelous for Thomson in the Fourth, but the LPO achieved mixed results in the others.
All of this is presented clearly by the Chandos engineers in sound that is balanced and slightly distant. You’ll want to turn the volume up, especially in 2. I suspect a bit of gain riding, particularly in 5, but it’s not too objectionable. Good as the recording is, I prefer a closer, more powerful acoustic, as in Lyrita, though it may not match up in sheer clarity with Handley’s interpretations. Both are preferable to the sometimes murky sound of Chandos I and the reasonably clear but often flatter Naxos acoustic.
Now for the individual symphonies (generally described more fully in cited reviews; see also the English Symphonies Overview, July/Aug 2000).
- The First Symphony is said to be Bax’s tribute to friends killed in World War I and the Easter Uprising in Ireland. It has been criticized for bombast, but it’s among my favorites because of its power and tremendous energy. Part of its problem is that it has had only one really good stereo recording–Fredman’s unavailable Lyrita, a bold, tough-minded statement in great sound that misses a bit of the lyricism. Thomson gave us a good II but isn’t tough enough otherwise. Lloyd-Jones is too tough, and his brass press too hard and miss much of the lyricism. Handley captures all the grandeur and majesty. The opening is broad and strong, but not percussive, and it moves with tensile strength. The climaxes are full, the lyrical sections lyrical, nothing is overblown, and the big parts are always clear. Handley considers the dark II the symphony’s core. It begins as if rising slowly from deep caves and takes on grand pageantry and nobility, particularly in the hymn-like passages, before returning to the caves as it left them. III is lively yet weighty, and Handley ties its disparate parts together before a well-prepared last chord. Because he captures the whole of the piece more than Fredman, he goes to the top of my list.
- The First and Second are often grouped together, but they’re very different symphonies, the Second bleaker, more “modern”, disparate, and difficult to comprehend. Handley cites it as a prime example of Bax’s “metamorphosis” technique, pointing out how it’s built from its first few pages. Studying all these scores is fascinating, but none more so than the Second. Still, it took a while to warm up to this performance. Handley’s emphasis on structure reveals real insights–eg, the menacing influence of the piano in I and the crunch of the organ at the end–but it seemed to rein in the music. I want more glow and weight in I and II and more athleticism in III. The opening is too deliberate, as if unfolding rather than moving forward. I want the lyrical sections more tender, and I sense impatience in the fast tempos. Places like the Poco Tenuto at 5:54 could be broader, and the strings could dig in more at the Moderato at 12:44. On the other hand I always found the transition at 13.09, where Bax elongates an early theme, and the first moments of II that go from Holst to Bax in the main tune to be magical. But then at 6:53, I wish for more bass. The opening to III is visionary and later festive, but the orchestra is not quite as visceral and athletic as Fredman’s London Philharmonic. And so it goes. But as I listened more, I warmed up to this performance considerably. I really do like the way it reveals the complexity and construction of the work. Nevertheless, Handley must share and possibly cede the spotlight to Fredman’s powerful Lyrita. All the Lyritas remind us that there is a case for the Bax symphonies as big romantic works, but none more so than Fredman’s Second and Norman Del Mar’s Sixth. Handley and Fredman triumph over the lifeless Thomson and Lloyd-Jones, whose orchestra is especially undernourished in this work (Nov/Dec 1999).
- The Third Symphony was Handley’s youthful introduction to Bax’s symphonies. (As an advocate of libraries, I note the pleasure he took from discovering and obtaining scores from the Enfield Public Library.) It made a deep impression, and it’s clear from this performance and the time he devotes to discussing it with McGregor that it still does. The Third was popular in its day and was beautifully recorded (monaurally) by John Barbirolli. After that, I know of two poor stereos from Edward Downes and Thomson. It remained for Lloyd-Jones (July/Aug 2000) to restore its stature on records and for Handley to make it sound like one of Bax’s best symphonies.I have no trouble with Handley’s unusually quick opening tempo, because the pulse and flow are convincing. The woodwinds interweave magically in the beginning, and the hymn-like string passage before the Allegro is lovely. “Sparkling” is an odd description for this music; “resonant” is a curious characterization of the energy of the downbeats in the Allegro and the coordination between the triple rhythm in the high instruments and the duple theme below. Both fit. Handley dismisses the structural objections to the long slow section with spellbinding phrasing, rich string tone, and a pace that breathes with subtle variances. Note the attention to dynamics, the clarity that puts the harp in perfect perspective, the eerie vibratoless violas (11:13) leading to a passage of filament strings reprising the opening interweaving passage, and later, the refined passion of threading lines at II 3:54. I’m not surprised to hear Holst’s ‘Uranus’ at the end of I, but I’m amazed to find Schreker’s luminous impressionism at the Piu Lento with horns, strings, and celeste (4:48). In III, the rhythm lights up the room. (Note the precursors to Malcolm Arnold’s style.) From the lushness in the pacing strings, the Epilogue conjures that other world that Bax was yearning for, ending with a multicolored, diaphanous chord.
- At first I thought this Fourth understated. Thomson seemed lusher and Lloyd-Jones (Sept/Oct 2002) more energetic. But the more I play the newcomer, the more I appreciate it. Control and deliberate pacing are apparent from the onset–so much so that Handley does not achieve the “breaking waves” effect at :20 the way Barbirolli did in a broadcast (though Handley mentions this effect to McGregor). The sound is full, with more bass than the others. The triple rhythm section is light on the downbeat, but cleverly phrased. A pristine oboe solo is followed by the richness of the cello and violas. The mood change (to evening?) at 5:17 is beautifully done, the clarinet over the trombones is ghostly (7:19), and the string chords are eerie at 7:48. I really like the exuberance near the end, and the powerful organ offers stunning support. Handley continues to exploit his rich string section at the opening of II. The combination of control, movement, and refined orchestral textures suggests Delius in a way no one else manages. A bit more vigor would help in the second half, where Bax’s structure loosens, but he gets his hand back on the tiller by the end. Sparkling, light, game-like, and sprightly all describe III. Brilliant and uplifting ending.
- Bax dedicated the Fifth to Jan Sibelius, but no one calls it Sibelian. Leppard is too earthy and Thomson too hedonistic and pagan for much of the Finn’s influence to be noticeable, while Lloyd-Jones’s light, austere reading is too grey (Sept/Oct 2000). Handley hasn’t given us Sibelius’s Eighth, but he has made the strongest case for a link between the two masters.The usual Handley qualities apply. The bass is strong at the onset, and the music moves quickly, with plenty of detail (eg, the clarinet weaving over the signature rhythm). The buildup to the first climax is typically controlled, and the first Allegro is fast and crisp. The transition to the triplets in the clarinet is beautiful (5:13), and the slow tempo that follows contrasts nicely with the quick opening speeds. All of this is sleekly played, with sophistication and delicacy that makes the music more exotic and impressionist than romantic and hedonic. Handley finds great mystery in the slow movement. The opening is slow and broad, with customary rich string textures and breadth as it unfolds majestically–note the wildness in the tuba solo. III opens with rich strings and a brisk allegro. The feeling is bristling–dare I say icy?–though the processional is quite dark. Great clarity reveals a lot of (Sibelian?) woodwind color, but the pulsating rhythmic section suggests Stravinsky (Handley says Shostakovich) to the point where it sounds like a “modern” work.
Handley says the Fifth is the most difficult Bax symphony to interpret, but his recording is a great one that has made me rethink not only that Sibelian “connection” but the other recorded Fifths. Suddenly my long-admired Leppard sounds slow, tentative, and occasionally ragged. Thomson is slower than Leppard, but he has more grip on structure than I used to think. His warm romanticism is the anti-Handley; but it is beautifully played, convincing, and much admired by Handley himself. Lloyd-Jones follows Handley’s lead somewhat, but far less effectively in one of his weaker efforts.
- Handley considers the Sixth Bax’s finest symphony and one of the best of the century, so I’m surprised to find it the weakest performance of this set. (“Weak” is relative: this is still a wonderful recording.) It is dangerous to draw conclusions from a few statements, but Handley argued strongly in his interview with McGregor for the soundness of Bax’s structure in this work. (He also tells a delightful story about Boult and Bax’s structure.) Handley sees III as the culmination of the work and goes so far as to quip that he could almost skip I and II to get to it. He speaks very highly of I and II, but it may be no coincidence that III is his strongest movement. I speculated whether concern with revealing the structure drew a bit of energy from Handley’s Second, but I’m more inclined to think this happened with the Sixth. This is a refined, mellifluous reading that may anticipate the elegiac Seventh more than it closes the book on the drama and struggle that mark all predecessors but the Fourth. It is very complex and brings out more of the piece’s multifaceted character than the fine Del Mar and Lloyd-Jones readings (July/Aug 2003).The weighty opening is what I’d expect, though it doesn’t dance or suggest Ravel’s Bolero as Del Mar, and to a lesser extent, Lloyd-Jones do. The Allegro is typically fast but light, and the lyrical sections are pliable and mellifluous. Where I find the performance most lacking is in II. Handley’s slow movement seems too fast, as well as too light and breathy. The rhythm could use more bite, particularly in the Scottish snap. The playing has more energy in III, though it remains refined in Handley’s concept. The epilogue is beautiful. It wouldn’t surprise me if my estimation of this performance goes up, but for the moment, I place it a close third, well ahead of Thomson and the poorly played Bostock (July/Aug 1999).
- The Seventh Symphony was Bax’s last major work. Like many composers’ late pieces, it is sparse in scoring and somewhat “modern” in effect. One look at the mass of white space in the score makes this obvious, but it doesn’t always come across on a recording. Handley and Chandos expose Bax’s lighter orchestration with transparent textures, clear sound, and control that is more refined than rigid. Some of II could be thought of as a woodwind quintet with strings. (Listen to the ensemble between the horns and flutes at page 8:14. These players are listening to each other like chamber musicians.) The Seventh is one of the few symphonies where Handley is slower than Lloyd-Jones (Mar/Apr 2004), at least in I and II. If he seems faster, it is because of an urgency in the pacing. The fanfare is more festive than majestic. The rhythm is cleanly honed in the crisp parts, but the lyrical sections–eg, the violin tune at 4:36–are liquid and smooth. Between 3:17 and 4:36 the tone evolves from urgent to regal. The Seventh is Bax’s farewell to composition, but you’d never think so until the mood change at the con melancholia of II at 7:43. From there and through the noble passacaglia of III and the bittersweet trills of the epilogue, Bax’s farewell to serious composition gradually descends.Handley’s Seventh stands by itself and is essential to one’s appreciation of the valedictory nature of the piece. Still, no Baxian should be without the earthy Leppard and probably Lloyd-Jones’s energetic and entertaining overview, though neither brings out the Seventh’s autumnal qualities the way Handley does. Thomson comes closest, especially in II and most of III, though his epilogue is prosaic, and I suffers from the lack of cohesion that plagues most of his set.
Tintagel. Handley doesn’t dig into this piece the way Boult and Barbirolli do; nor does he proffer the rugged landscape of Lloyd-Jones. Instead, he gives us mysterious grandeur that is slow, seamless, expansive–even cosmic. It doesn’t replace those three performances, but it stands with them.
Rogue’s Comedy Overture. This is the first recording of a work that is in the vein of Bax’s Overture to a Picaresque but is catchier and less varied. Handley’s lively airing is very entertaining.
Chandos has done well in its presentation. In addition to the conversation with Handley in the companion disc, there is an interview in the book conducted by Bax biographer Lewis Foreman. Both are full of the conductor’s challenging views on Bax and on music in general. Each CD liner contains a number of session photos.
In concluding his talk with Foreman, Vernon Handley expressed annoyance “that Bax’s comprehensive musical technique is not recognized”. Bax, he says, “releases us into an entirely different world, for nobody … approaches the range of Bax’s moods … He has given us something that is different from all other composers. That this is not recognized I find extraordinary. So one has to go on trying to do something about it.”
Perhaps he has done so. Chandos sold out its stock and ran out of review copies. I got these discs late and had to be given an extension and work more quickly than usual to finish this review. I can’t think of a better reason to have to rush to a deadline.
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