Bax: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, "The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew." David Lloyd-Jones, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.554509.

I used to have a favorite recording of the Bax Fifth Symphony in the old LP days, one by Raymond Leppard on Lyrita as I recall, long since gone, a casualty of the CD era. It's been some time since I last heard the work, and, frankly, I didn't remember much of it after thirty-odd years. But I knew after listening to David Lloyd-Jones's rendition on this modestly priced Naxos issue that I still like it, especially in its newer and more dramatic aural setting.

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was a contemporary of Vaughan Williams, and the public considered both men natural successors to Edward Elgar as deans of twentieth-century British music. Bax took an early liking to the poetry of W.B. Yeats and Celtic mythology, and much of Bax's music reflects the imagery and atmosphere of Celtic legend. However, his Fifth Symphony, often considered the best (and, surely, the most popular) of the seven symphonies he completed, is a little different in that he said his biggest influence was the Nordic moods of Sibelius. Bax premiered the Fifth in 1934 under the baton of one of Sibelius's champions, Sir Thomas Beecham, but David Lloyd-Jones does an admirably fine job bringing out the music's color as well.

David Lloyd-Jones
Sibelius or no, I continue to hear more of the craggy ruggedness and brooding echoes of Tintagel and the coast of Cornwall in the piece than any specific Norse themes. Bax wrote the symphony in three movements rather than four, and none of the movements is particularly poetic or lyrical. The work starts on a typically mysterious note--a soft, pulsing beat that builds into shattering waves and then walls of sound. The whole work has a power and scope that remind one of the aptly chosen cover picture of the Scottish highlands. Or the Cornish coast. Fanfares and glimmering violins continue the second movement, which turns more solemn as it goes along. The finale moves along with a strong forward impulse and ends in a grand burst of orchestral color. It's all very dramatic and intense under Lloyd-Jones's direction and a workout for one's audio system.

Coupled with the Fifth is one of Bax's many tone poems, a sixteen-minute composition with the inconvenient title, "The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew." Inconvenient because it tends to make the piece seem like a children's story, which it most pointedly is not. It is, in fact, a miniature of the Fifth Symphony, with the same kind of craggy rhythms, rugged harmonies, and moody reflections.

Done up as sympathetically as it is by Maestro Lloyd-Jones, whose Scottish forces must have this music in their blood, the entire album is hard to resist. Then there's Naxos's sound, which is equally big and dramatic, with plenty of weight, and you get more than a measure of your money's worth. If you like the music of Bax, this disc is well worth considering.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa