The music of the English composer, Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) fell into a severe decline after his death. Nearly 40 years ago, the Lyrita record company began recording many of his works, including the symphonies (except No.4)and today most of Bax's music can be found on CD. Between 1921 and 1939, he wrote seven symphonies containing music of great range - sometimes brutal, sometimes sublimely lyrical. They show Bax to be a master of the orchestra, creating original textures to build a brooding atmosphere or sparkling sea-scape.
The first symphony on this CD is No.1. It originated as a piano sonata which Bax found cried out for orchestral dress. Like the first three symphonies, it is a dark work, redolent of dim northern climes. A threatening, rhythmic 5-note figure is hammered out and this features prominently later. The mood of desolation permeates the whole movement. The second begins mysteriously, with thrumming harps and low brass, showing the composer's skills and imagination in tone painting. The gloom is gradually dispersed and the music evolves into a shattering climax. A beautiful 'liturgical' theme arises, often on muted strings and the thrumming harps reappear to close the movement. The last movement (Bax preferred the 3-movement format) commences with a jolly, scherzo-like episode. Thematic material from the opening of the symphony creeps in in lyrical dress, totally devoid of threat and it is this which, in grand fashion, finishes the symphony.
The 7th, and last, symphony (here conducted by Raymond Leppard) begins like a walk on a windy day. The music is invigorating and highly rhythmic and a characteristic recurring melodic cell is heard. Later the music broadens out into a more ceremonial vein but then subsides, with flurries of the wind, into a quiet close. The slow movement is not one of Bax's best - his rich inventiveness seems to have deserted him and even the tunes do not sound like his. It is lovely but in a rather 'generic' way. The finale consists of a theme and variations, and an epilogue. There are beauties here but the epilogue, compared to that of the 3rd symphony, is not up to his usual standard. Maybe he felt this himself for he wrote very little after this.
The performances by Myer Fredman, Raymond Leppard and the London Philharmonic Orchestra are first rate and the recordings wear their age lightly (1971, 1975). I think these were world premiere recordings - Lyrita did not normally mention these vulgar facts.
There have been several complete cycles recorded since these, all good, but the present recommendation has to be that by Vernon Hanley with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos).