Bax: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Also, Into the Twilight; Summer Music. David Lloyd-Jones, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.557144.

Where would we be without Chandos and Naxos? Well, we wouldn't have much of Sir Arnold Bax, that's for sure. The British composer (1883-1953) was at one time well represented in the catalogue by EMI and Lyrita, but today it's almost entirely Chandos and Naxos. While the former label may offer slightly better sound, it's the Naxos label that provides the bargains.

Naxos set out some years ago to record all seven of Bax's symphonies and as many of his short works as possible, most or all of them with conductor David Lloyd-Jones. So far as I can tell, Lloyd-Jones has done all of the symphonies now, and I believe he's done most of the tone poems as well.

Lloyd-Jones performs the Symphony No. 6 (1935) with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and they do it at least as well as what we heard in previous Naxos editions, meaning with plenty of Celtic atmosphere. That is what Bax is all about, of course--Celtic atmosphere. With No. 6 we get it in spades, from the mercurial opening movement with its tempestuous mood swings to the lilting slow movement and the stormy finale, which finally fades gently, tranquilly away. Bax himself claimed that the Sixth was his favorite of all the symphonies, and critics have generally agreed. What's more, while Bax shows us that he's clearly a Romantic at heart, there is yet a good deal of the modern twentieth century in there as well. There's even some Scottish folk music, a bit of jazz, and a pair of marches thrown around for good measure, so the music offers a little something for everyone. Lloyd-Jones and his Royal Scottish players capture not only the atmosphere but its many contrasts as well, the conductor always sensitive to the nuances of the music.

Personally, however, being the Philistine that I am, I prefer Bax's briefer tone poems to his longer symphonies because I think he conveys a more concentrated feeling for his subject matter in the shorter pieces. Frankly, I long ago began to tire of Bax's symphonies, as they began sounding too much alike for my taste, even though the composer seemed to shake things up well enough with No. 6 to keep my attention. Understand, I don't really dislike Bax's symphonies; it's just that I find his tone poems, such as the two contained on this disc, get more quickly to the heart of matters and, therefore, keep me more interested and intrigued. I suppose it's all a question of personal taste, and Bax may be an acquired one. Besides, to me the symphonies tend to sound like a series of tone poems strung together, anyway, not always with as much cohesion as I'd prefer. For example, although Bax breaks the Sixth Symphony into three official movements, he further divides the final movement into what are actually four distinct segments.

Whatever, the accompanying works, "Into the Twilight" and "Summer Music," are both delightfully descriptive and evocative, and Lloyd-Jones does them as well as anybody. The conductor and orchestra have an obvious affinity for Bax's music, and it's always a pleasure hearing them.

Naxos released the present disc in 2003, and their sound seems to me even better than in their previous Bax recordings. As before, it's big, bold, warm sound, the bass never actually reaching the lowest octaves but probably not needing to. There is a rich lower midrange that maybe obscures a little of what could have been greater depth and transparency, but the result makes for easy, comfortable, concert hall-style listening.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa