This disc, very well recorded in 1996, is part of the series of Bax symphony recordings made by Naxos with these forces. The Scottish orchestra was brought right up to international standards by Jarvi and was recorded to good effect in those days by Chandos. Now the baton has been taken up by Naxos and it is a great pleasure to report that those very high orchestral standards have certainly been maintained. David Lloyd-Jones has created an enviable international reputation as a conductor of note so this series appears to have some exciting basic ingredients to offer.
The two poems, In the Faery Hills and The Garden of Fand are both works inspired by Bax's close identification with all things Irish. The symphony itself started life as an intended piano sonata but hugely outgrew that medium and thus became a symphony in greatly expanded form. It is cast in three movements and, although very lyrical in conception, it could be generally described as having significant elements of anger combined with sorrow. Although Bax did not clarify his thoughts in detail it is generally agreed that the symphony, completed in 1921-2, was strongly representative of his responses to the recently completed World War and the Irish Easter Rising of 1916. The anger he felt is implied in the opening Allegro moderato e feroce and the following Lento solenne. Continuing the theme of strife, the symphony concludes with Tempo di marcia trionfale.
The performances on this disc are significantly more driven than the Bryden Thompson set and quite a bit more than those of Handley. The Garden of Fand is also far better recorded and played than that in the respected but historic version by Barbirolli. This extra degree of power, forward drive and expressive bite is totally appropriate to the implied subject matter of the symphony in particular. At the same time Jones makes sure that the more delicate moments, such as are to be found in the two tone poems, are given appropriate light and delicate handling.
The disc further scores over Handley on Chandos by being more generously filled. Handley's versions are best purchased in the boxed symphonies with the majority of tone poems being collected on supplementary single discs. The extra material will be included as part of the ongoing series of symphony releases on Naxos which many will find more attractive as programming.
To conclude I would suggest that this set by Lloyd-Jones will be one to consider. Certainly this particular disc is well worth its moderate asking price and is arguably the best available at present regardless of price. As such it warrants serious consideration by all potential purchasers.
The Naxos label commissioned a cycle of Arnold Bax orchestral works from David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the 1990s; this disc was the second to be recorded in January 1996. The whole cycle has been very well received and the inclusion of most of the composers tone poems make it a more complete (and rather less expensive) proposition than the Chandos recordings by either Brydon Thomson Complete Symphonies (Thomson, Lpo, Ulster Orchestra) or Vernon Handley Bax: The Symphonies 1-7, Tintagel, Rogue's Comedy & interview with Vernon Handley. Throughout, the performances are idiomatic and generally very well recorded by Tim Handley - this volume was set down in the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow.
The CD contains three works. We start with the neat, vivid "In the Faery Hills" from 1909. Next we have "The Garden of Fand". According to the late Peter J Pirie:-
"In 1916 Arnold Bax finished the first of three wartime symphonic poems, which had nothing to do with the war, but much to do with his private concerns at the time: "The Garden of Fand". It is as I have said one of the few completely uninhibited pieces of colour music by an Englishman; but it is rather short-winded, and lacks the size and scope of such things as "Daphnis et Chloë." Typically, Bax prefaced the score with a long and largely irrelevant piece of prose in English, thus prejudicing the work among foreign conductors - and that means important conductors. Yet the opening words of this introduction are haunting, and not without significance: "The Garden of Fand is the Sea." He goes on to narrate part of the saga of Cuchulain, which has little to do with the music; only at the end does he explain that the symphonic poem is about Irish sailors venturing into the Atlantic and finding Fand's enchanted island. Fand and her women seduce them, so that they do not see the great wave that finally engulfs the island. Nothing is left at the end but the vision out of which the music arose: the hazy distances of the Atlantic in summer. Without ever suggesting the methods of Debussy, the score is of great beauty, and is implicity if not explicitly sexual in its emotional impact. As such it breaks the unconscious taboo that haunts the greater part of English music. It seems that this symphonic poem, with the later "November Woods" and "Tintagel", marks the crisis which occured in Bax's private life during the war, when his marriage broke down. He had just met Harrie Cohen, the pianist, and his love affair with her dominated the rest of his life. "Tintagel", together with much piano music, is dedicated to her, and "The Garden of Fand" is surely her portrait."
Bax's First Symphony was completed in 1922. Pirie tells us:-
"Nicknamed "The Demon" on its first performance, and in a gruff E flat major and minor, its first movement began life as a piano sonata. One can see its origins in the slow harp running up to the barking motto theme which begins the symphony, and which was to haunt Bax for the rest of his life. The symphony is a brutal landscape, black in colour and violent in mood, with more fast tempo in it than is usual with Bax, and a slow movement of extraordinary power, in which a climactic tonality of C major in undermined and finally shattered by a great pedal on A flat and D flat.
It was the culmination of a series of events that had shattered the easy-going world of Bax's youth: the war, the Easter Rising, in which a number of his friends died, the breakdown of his marriage, and perhaps most of all, his own realisation that his style was too self-indulgent, and that outside England music was becoming more and more radical. It is possible to see the influence of "Le Sacre du Printemps" in Bax's First Symphony; certainly the bleak final march suggests Stravinsky, as do also certain aspects of the brass writing in the first movement. The symphony is challenging in its austerity, its harshness, and its forbidding mood; but it is well constructed, closely argued, and immensely imaginative. Only Elgar and Vaughan Williams had attempted works so ambitious at the date, and Bax's symphony was more advanced in idion than either of the older composers. It is not really a Romantic work. It is too uncompromising in harmonic language, and too honest in its desolate mood."
(Quotes from "The English Musical Renaissance", Peter J Pirie, Gollancz, 1979 English Musical Renaissance; a highly recommended, if rather obscure, book.)
I love the music of Bax, which seems to conjure a world of Arthurian Celticism and pre-industrial culture. It seems that more people than heretofore are coming to the same interest after decades of public uninterest and unknowing. Despite the (not always deserved) reputation of this label for cut-price recordings using little-known orchestras and conductors, their list is impressive and many of the CD's they make very fine. Personally, I found this CD to be one of those. Especially good was the tone poem In The Faery Hills, which seemed to me to capture the dreamy and sometimes dramatic essence of Bax's music. Parts of the playing had a suspenseful, almost Wagnerian quality. One could almost see green Pan emerge on those faery hills! Recommended.