Bax Tone Poems on Naxos – Review by Richard R. Adams
Sir Arnold Bax Website
Bax: Garden of Fand , Tintagel, November Woods, The Happy Forest , The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew.
David Lloyd-Jones, Conductor
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Review by Richard R. Adams
David Lloyd-Jones’ cycle of Bax symphonies on Naxos did as much as the more lauded Handley cycle on Chandos to improve Bax’s reputation as a symphonist. Compared with the earlier and frequently erratic and sluggish Thomson performances (also on Chandos), the L-J performances were muscular, cogently argued and very cleanly, albeit dryly, recorded. For many who knew the symphonies only through the Thomson set, the L-J recordings were a revelation for he emphasized structural cohesion over luxuriance of sound. It seems a little unfair that L-J’s significant contribution to the Bax discography has been put in the shade by Handley’s box set for both conductors succeeded in disproving the frequently stated charge that Bax’s symphonies are structurally unsound. Where Handley improves upon L-J is in his affectionate identification with the music. In comparison, L-J can sound a little business like or emotionally detached but there’s no denying that many of the performances from his cycle are among the most impressive ever recorded.
All of the L-J symphony issues included a tone poem or two and this new issue is a compilation of several of the tone poems from his set. Naxos has chosen to include the best known tone poems including Garden of Fand, November Woods and Tintagel, and while that makes sense economically, artistically it wasn’t the best decision as these performances are far from the best L-J gave us. I believe L-J’s performances of the tone poems are generally weaker than those of the symphonies because he applied the same ultra-disciplined approach to Bax’s more opulent and romantic creations and the effect was to rob the music of much of its innate poetry and mystery. His performances are generally quite exciting such as in November Woods, which is taken much more quickly than usual, but aside from creating visceral thrills, the music fails to capture the underlying psychological drama inherent in the music.
This criticism certainly applies to Tintagel, which receives the rawest and most poorly recorded performance in the stereo era. The orchestra sounds like it was recorded in a shoebox because there’s absolutely no depth to the sound at all. As usual, L-J is scrupulous in his attention to dynamics but that wonderful feeling for the ebb and flow of this music so much a part of Barbirolli’s and Handley’s performances is missing. It’s a fully professional job but not much else and the performance also suffers from an undernourished string sound that gives emphasis to the brass, which are extremely impressive but not well blended into the texture. This is a very two-dimensional performance and easily the weakest from the set.
I’ve already mentioned the problems with November Woods although I would add that it is a unique interpretation and one that is worth hearing because it is so different from what we usually hear. I suspect L-J’s intention was to give us a literal depiction of a late autumn storm and in that regard he succeeds brilliantly but it is in the more introspective pages that his performance disappoints. It is all too literal – almost as if the music was meant as a soundtrack, but this score in particular goes so much deeper than that as the old Lyrita Boult and the forthcoming Chandos Handley readily demonstrate. Praise should be given to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra who do sound fully engaged in the music and here the recording is more open but still too dry.
L-J’s Garden of Fand is, in my opinion, rather underrated. It’s certainly more impressive than Thomson’s sluggish account on Chandos and I think it has more fire and drive than Boult’s Lyrita account. The opening is beautifully paced and nicely balanced and the music depicting the dancing revelers on the island has just the right amount of lilt and energy – – “gay, but not hurried”, as the score indicates. L-J’s is perhaps a little too straight with Fand’s Song of Immortal Love but he reprise of the big tune at 10:08 is very powerful and the all important piccolo line at 13:36 is clearly heard. Also impressive is the buildup to the huge climax starting at 13:26 . L-J inspires some truly impressive playing from the RNSO players at the moment the huge wave engulfs the island. It’s a very fine account and certainly the best individual performance on this disc.
The performance of The Happy Forest would be ideal if L-J had allowed the music to relax a little more in the sumptuous middle section. Instead, he seems to rush it along and consequently spoils the sense of rapt stillness that the music creates in more sympathetic hands such as Thomson and Edward Downes. It’s really a shame because L-J is so successful with the fast music that opens and closes the work, which has enormous character and energy. This had every right to be a classic Bax performance if L-J had allowed for a little more affectionate phrasing in the slow middle section of the work.
The Tales the Pine-Tree Knew is always a tough nut for conductors and few seem to get it right. The L-J version is a respectable account but I wish he had infused the opening pages with a little more energy (a unusual criticism to make of L-J’s conducting) and I wish he’d allowed for a little more expressive phrasing in the beautiful middle section (Thomson gets this music absolutely right in his Chandos account). This score fails to catch fire in this performance and while Thomson is equally slow in the opening pages, he does get closer to the heart of the music throughout. Handley, despite the playing of a semi-amateur orchestra (the Guildford ), gets it right on his old Revolution recording and I’m quite fond of a live broadcast performance by that most sympathetic but unsung Baxian, Maurice Handford. Who knows if that performance will ever be made available by the BBC?
I don’t want to give the impression that L-J is unsympathetic to Bax’s tone poems as several of his recordings are outstanding. If I had planned this disc, I would have included Garden of Fand, but also added his charming accounts of In the Faery Hills andSummer Music, his brilliant performance of Overture to a Picaresque Comedy and his outstanding account of Nympholept – the best performance that piece has ever received in my opinion. He paces it to perfection. Perhaps Naxos will give us a second volume to include these fine performances and I hope they do, as I’d recommend it very warmly. This particular release is a mixed bag. There are greater performances of each of these works although not as a compilation but I would recommend buyers wait for the new Handley Chandos release that includes the finest accounts this Baxian has yet heard of November Woods and Garden of Fand along with a brilliant In the Faery Hills and Sinfonietta. That disc should be released later this year or early next year.