Bax sym6 8557144

Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2003 and the recording is still available.

Sir 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 Royal Concert Hall, UK
Naxos 8.557144 [58]

I am reminded of David Lloyd-Jones’ remarks about Bax’s Sixth Symphony in an interview for British Music Society News. He said, “I think the 6th Symphony is the most cogent [of Bax’s seven symphonies]. It contains a lot of fastish music which Bax pulls off very well. It has a different tone and inhabits a different world to the rest of the symphonies. But so does the 7th Symphony which is full of good music, though it is not so personal and therefore not as persuasive as the 6th.” Vernon Handley, when asked what was his favourite Bax work replied, “As an orchestral conductor, the works that flood through the mind immediately are, of course, all the symphonies, tone poems and concerti but I think probably the 6th Symphony is my favourite because of its remarkable control of form and its very tight argument. It addresses a very big universal problem as well as a personal one for Bax. It is an apocalyptic symphony and Bax was obviously very moved – and moved intellectually – while writing it.”

Apocalyptic indeed, and Lloyd-Jones in this penultimate recording of his acclaimed Bax symphonies cycle for Naxos (only the Seventh Symphony remains to be published) brilliantly realises the cataclysmic, the primordial elements of this symphony of conflicts – conflicts of tonality, rhythm and mood etc., conflicts first stated in Bax’s First Symphony and perpetuated and developed throughout the set (the symphonies may be viewed as a continuing saga as first highlighted by Colin Scott-Sutherland in his ground-breaking biography) and only resolved in the dying pages of this Symphony and in the comparative calm of the Seventh.

Lloyd-Jones’ opening pages are bleak, preluding a tempestuous view of the first movement. Bax worked on this symphony huddled in his hotel room at Morar near the end of the Road to the Isles overlooking the Hebridean islands of Eigg and Rhum in the depths of winter. (Cannily he chose a hotel adjoining the railway station so that he could easily return to civilization if necessary). The music of this first movement (and elsewhere), in Lloyd-Jones’ reading, suggests to me, having visited Morar, the special, swiftly changing winter weather and light up there; one minute peaceful, the next wild and turbulent. One can imagine deep turbulent waters with huge waves tossed and whipped by veering gale force winds as they surge and race shorewards. But so does Bryden Thomson in his London Philharmonic reading (on Chandos CHAN 8586) although his reading is that much more romantic and is captured in superior sound. (Both conductors take 9:45 mins to perform this movement).

Thomson allows the lovely second movement 10:39 mins to breathe more whereas Lloyd-Jones moves the music forward through 9:45 mins. Much has been written about Bryden Thomson’s relaxed tempi in these Bax symphonies and generally I would agree but in this instance I prefer to dawdle and admire the scenery, so enjoying all the more the dramatic contrast in the opening and tripartite closing movements – not that Thomson eschews dramatic tension in this movement, anyway and conversely there is much beauty in Lloyd-Jones’ version. Both he and Lloyd-Jones in their different accentuations take a bleak view of that telling slow march tread towards the end of the movement (with Lloyd-Jones omitting the tambourine according to Bax’s revision).

Lloyd-Jones’ forceful and tremendously exciting reading of the complex third movement [marked: Introduction (Lento moderato) – Scherzo and Trio (Allegro vivace – Andante semplice) – Epilogue (Lento)] is accomplished in 16:55 mins, whereas Thomson spends 19:01. After the wistful long-breathed clarinet solo, he opts for a softer, more picturesque Introduction, Lloyd-Jones sculpts a rockier edifice. Lloyd-Jones builds a huge, shattering apocalyptic climax at the end of the Scherzo before final resolution is reluctantly won against diminishing protestations, signalled by those ethereal horns. Thomson’s climax is not so threatening and his longer Epilogue is a relatively easier and, one feels, a more complete resolution.

In conclusion, I am going to resolutely sit on the fence. I admire both Bryden Thomson’s recording and this new Lloyd-Jones version of this marvellous symphony. It all depends on one’s mood. And one must not forget Norman Del Mar’s remarkable recording, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, made for Lyrita – thrilling and atmospheric – issued in 1967 on LP only and alas no longer available

The fill-ups on this album are equally inviting. Into the Twilight is an early work compiled from material that Bax originally conceived for an opera based on the legendary Irish heroine, Deirdre of the Sorrows (Bax had previously written a five-act play that would have been the source of the play’s libretto). Bax wrote that it ‘seeks to give a musical impression of the brooding quiet of the Western Mountains at the end of twilight and to express something of the timelessness and hypnotic dream which veils Ireland at such an hour.” Lloyd-Jones spins fairy enchantment. He also provides a nicely atmospheric reading of Summer Music written in London in 1921 and revised for publication in 1923. Bax wrote of it: ‘The piece, a musical description of a hot windless June mid-day in some wooded place in Southern England, is lyrical throughout. During the greater part of it the strings are occupied in providing a murmurous accompaniment to the pastoral reveries of the various wind instruments, and not until near the end is there any great climax of sound.”

A thrilling, evocative reading of Bax’s finest symphonic accomplishment.

Ian Lace

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