Bax: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, November Woods. David Lloyd-Jones, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.554093.

It's always surprised me that the music of English composer Sir Arnold Bax (1883–1953) has never been more recorded. The material is certainly right for the high-fidelity medium. Take his Symphony No. 2 in E minor and C major (1926), for instance. Bax worked on it for two years, scoring it for a very large orchestra, featuring a wide variety of instrumental colors, with big, dramatic contrasts throughout its length. The first of three movements opens on an almost sinister note, builds through a huge, jagged crescendo, settles into a soft, somewhat melancholy mood, and then returns in the finale to the craggy heights of its beginnings, ending where it began in a gentle yet sinister mood. Such rugged individualism was something new for an English composer of the early twentieth century, yet Bax set all of it clearly within a late-Romantic framework.

Audiences apparently loved Bax's Second Symphony for a time, until his style went out of vogue in the mid century. But it isn't so much the symphony here that counts, anyway, as it is his tone poem "November Woods," one of the best things he ever wrote (along with another of his tone poems, "Tintagel"). "November Woods" is even more evocative than the Second Symphony, a kind of miniature adventure in the woods on the proverbial dark and stormy night. 

David Lloyd-Jones
Maestro David Lloyd-Jones brings off both works successfully, especially the symphony, but unfortunately for him he has to compete in the tone poem with Sir Adrian Boult. Boult's "November Woods" on Lyrita is without peer; indeed, it is one of my ten favorite recordings of all time, capturing the spirit of the forest at night with inimitable persuasion. Lloyd-Jones makes the woods dark and menacing. Boult makes them magical, as well.

Besides which Boult's late-Sixties Lyrita sound is superior to the Naxos digital effort. This is not to downgrade the Naxos sound, mind you, which is fine in its own right; but the Lyrita recording has greater transparency, more dynamic range, a wider stereo spread, and, most important, a better presentation of front-to-back imaging, or depth. One has to pay through the nose for the Lyrita reissue, however, about five times the price of the Naxos disc. And therein may lie difference.

You actually can't go wrong with this Naxos release; the performances are first-rate, the sound is OK, and the price is right. It's just my bias showing for the older Lyrita favorite in the tone poem. 

JJP

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


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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