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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)

Symphonies: No. 1 in E flata (1921-22) [32’21]; No. 7b (1938-39) [45’34].
London Philharmonic Orchestra/aMyer Fredman, bRaymond Leppard.
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The word ‘feroce’ appears in the directive for the first movement of Bax’s First Symphony. Myer Fredman does not disappoint – there is something of a ‘dare’ about the horns’ fate-like gesture at the opening of the work, a defiance that runs through this movement. Fredman secures impassioned playing from the LPO and paces the movement supremely well, so that the second subject, when it comes (three minutes in), acts as aural balm in its tender, lyrical, almost sotto voce demeanour. Rhythms, so important, nay vital, here, take on towards the end almost the significance they do in Holst’s ‘Mars’. And look out for moments of real magic, too (the flutes at 10’37ff). The second movement (‘Lento solenne’) is a dark and powerful elegy, hardly a place of retreat from the boundless energies of the surrounding movements (there are only three in total). The London Philharmonic’s concentration seems total. The finale boasts a big-boned introduction (Allegro maestoso) before the doors are opened on some glittering Baxian frolics.

Anguished harmonies seem more prevalent in Symphony No. 7, although some glittering moments bring contrast. The longer paragraphs carry with them a certain grandeur that is most affecting, a certain quiet nobility that inspires some sort of awe. The Lento (with a Piu mosso section marked, ‘In Legendary Mood’) is rather beautiful, although perhaps it is a trifle over-long (it begins to sprawl rather here). The ending is touchingly tender, though.

The finale begins with a nod to Britten in its open-air exuberance, and later features some brass writing that would not have disgraced Walton’s Crown Imperial. The close is certainly grand (although do I detect a hint of bombast?), and the noble, long-breathed string melodies are here even more effective because of Lyrita’s superb, warm recording. Of course we are in competition with Chandos’s Bryden Thomson and Vernon Handley, two conductors whose qualifications in this repertoire are fully acknowledged, not to mention David Lloyd Jones’s Bax recordings for Naxos. Yet Leppard’s instincts are accurate and always convincing.

This is a valuable disc, not least because it puts two substantive works by Bax side-by-side. Both performances do the scores justice and the recording is, as usual from this source, exemplary.

Colin Clarke

Arnold Bax Website

The Lyrita catalogue

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