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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No. 6 (1934) [39:32]
Irish Landscape (1913) [7:28]
Rogue’s Comedy Overture (1936) [10:54]
Overture to Adventure (1937) [9:28]
Overture: Work in Progress (1943) [8:18]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 18-20 July 1966 (6); Kingsway Hall, London, 29 April 1976 (Irish Landscape); 18 January 1994, Watford Town Hall (overtures). ADD/DDD (overtures)
LYRITA SRCD.296 [75:43]

Sound Extract 1st Movement

Bax’s violent and phantasmal Sixth Symphony is the central work here and is also essential Bax in performance and recording terms.

This Sixth is the version from which I ‘learnt’ the work; its impact has not dimmed with the passing years. The CD transfer conveys with fidelity the indelibly imprinted remembered experience. How sad when a work’s first recording is less than successful. It can result in it being condemned for collateral reasons which are in fact to do with a misjudged performance or flawed recording. That is not the case here. Norman Del Mar takes hold of the work and his grip is relentless.

There have been four other recordings since 1966 but only David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos comes close to this one. It makes a great budget price alternative. Vernon Handley in his reading on Chandos takes only 35:33; that’s four minutes shorter than Del Mar. Handley takes the second and third movements faster than Del Mar and, having lived with this version for several years, Del Mar has the edge despite the splendours of the Chandos and BBCPO sound. The present Lyrita version has gravitas and poetry to a more intense degree. The higher strings play with silky slipperiness and the yearning phrasing is spot-on. The tempo and hesitations in the tired yet life-enhancing march at 8:49 in the second movement have never been caught as well. And have the waves of the first movement crashed down with such elemental violence before. However the touchstone is the finale. Its mercurial character pulses from the romantic desolate clarinet (0:49) to the pawky humour of the giddy bassoon (4:49), the groan and moan of the brass (2:00) and the rockingly trusting and tender strings (6:43). The ppp seagull flicker (4:03) predictive of the finale of the Seventh and last symphony gives place to the barkingly climactic monumentality of those hoarse and rock-steady syncopated horns (9:49). Then comes the poised falling away into the tranced glitter and glimmer of the epilogue. The work is rounded not so much with a sleep but with a shimmering vision even it is delectably troubled by the bass drum’s ominous beat (14:30). Also wonderful for such a veteran analogue recording is the voluptuous sound complete with the famed spotlighting of solo instruments and graphically defined stereo separation. This is the CD I would recommend as a starting place to anyone about to start exploring Bax’s symphonic works.
Bax Symphony No. 6 comparatives:-
Bostock – ClassicO
Lloyd-Jones – Naxos
Handley - Chandos

The symphony was first issued on LP as SRCS 35 whose strangely anonymous sleeve design became the uniform standard for all the Lyrita recordings of the Bax symphonies – the only differentiation being the tint. The cover design for this new CD is commandingly colourful and completely apt.

The other four items are well worth having too. Let’s start with the digitally recorded Bax overtures. Work-in-Progress, written as an ENSA wartime commission, with its Coatesian cheeriness is light Bax but still extremely listenable. It does not suffer from the bleached out blandness of much of the Oliver Twist score. It’s the work’s first ever recording – the last Bax overture to be recorded. Overture to Adventure has been recorded once before by Douglas Bostock on ClassicO. It’s a work from peak maturity in the 1930s and here benefits from Handley’s firm hand and from the sound of an orchestra so much richer than that available to Bostock. It’s a dynamic and swashbuckling piece redolent of the ‘Nordic’ Bax - the Northern Ballads (especially the First and Third). The Rogue’s Comedy Overture has been recorded before and is available as a filler to Chandos’s complete Bax symphonies. It too is from the high water years of the 1930s but it is more of an extended frolic being close in spirit if not in soundworld to the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy. This is relaxed Bax often sounding uncannily Bohemian – and there are moments when I was forcefully reminded of Smetana and Fibich – especially Fibich’s bubbly A Night in Karlstein. The Irish Landscape was recorded much earlier and in analogue. It is a gorgeous piece typical of Bax’s starry Celtic fantasy style and is buoyed up by a memorable melody from a master of melodies.

During the Autumn Lyrita will be issuing Symphonies 2 (Fredman) and 5 (Leppard) on a single CD. Symphonies 1 (Fredman) and 7 (Leppard) are on SRCD.232. In case you were wondering: Lyrita never recorded Bax’s Third and Fourth symphonies. In LP days these were covered by Revolution (4/Handley – urgent but at that time in scary shrill sound) and RCA (3, Downes – drowsy and lacking dynamism).

The Del Mar/Lyrita Bax 6 is violent and phantasmal - essential Bax in performance and recording terms. The other items simply underline the urgency of Baxians acquiring this collection.

Rob Barnett


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