Bax Complete Symphonies

Vernon Handley’s Bax symphony cycle represents a landmark achievement

Author: 
Andrew Achenbach

Bax Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 2
  • Symphony No. 3
  • Symphony No. 4
  • Symphony No. 5
  • Symphony No. 6
  • Symphony No. 7
  • Tintagel

Enthusiasts have long clamoured for a Bax symphony cycle under the baton of the composer’s doughtiest champion, but even they could hardly have imagined that it would appear in one fell swoop – and from the same company that has already given us a sumptuous, if admittedly uneven, series under Bryden Thomson. Hats off, then, to the BBC Manchester Music Department (and executive producer Brian Pidgeon, in particular, for pushing the project through) and to Chandos for its foresight, courage and sheer enterprise.

Let me say straight away that superlatives are in order here, though even seasoned Baxians will, I suspect, be startled by the propulsive vigour and sinewy strength of these performances. In its uncompromising thrust and snarling tragedy, Handley’s account of the First Symphony packs an almighty punch, yet at the same time he quarries more detail from Bax’s darkly opulent orchestration than I would ever have thought possible. In the symphony’s closing pages the motto theme’s sanguine tread is soon snuffed out, as Handley exposes the shredded nerve-ends of this music as never before. Listen out for the hair-raising shriek of E flat clarinet cutting through the texture at fig N (7'07"), those thrillingly ascending horns and numbingly powerful final chord (which brings the only fff marking in the whole movement – so typical of Handley’s concern for the long-term scheme).

As for its wild and brooding successor, this painstaking newcomer generates less heady sensuality than either the Thomson or Myer Fredman’s pioneering Lyrita version (6/71 – nla), but there’s ample compensation in the chaste beauty and enviable authority of Handley’s conception. Spectacle is never pursued for its own sake, while the slow movement acquires an unexpected nobility. Above all, Handley is scrupulously attentive to the astonishing thematic unity and innumerable contrapuntal and harmonic felicities that bind together the progress of this extraordinary canvas. Throughout, the the BBC Philharmonic respond with such eager application that it’s easy to forgive some very slight loss of composure in the build-up to the symphony’s cataclysmic pinnacle.

There can be no reservations whatsoever about Handley’s Third, an interpretation which strikes me as by far the finest we’ve had since Barbirolli’s legendary 1943-44 world première recording with the Hallé (Dutton, 9/01). Even more than the admirable David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos (2/00), Handley displays an unerring grip and rapt instinct. Bax’s iridescent textures shimmer and glow as they should, bass-lines stalk with reassuring logic and solidity (a salient feature of the entire set) and these exemplary artists distil all the poetry and mystery one could desire in the ravishing slow movement and epilogue (the latter will haunt you for days). I was also deeply moved by Handley’s tender, utterly unforced handling of the first movement’s Lento moderato secondary material (itself sublimely well integrated into the overall structure). This is, quite simply, a glorious performance of a glorious work.

The delights continue with the Fourth, Handley’s previous recording of which (with his trusty Guildford PO on Concert Artist, 2/65 – nla) is comprehensively outflanked by this bracing remake. If you’ve ever regarded the Fourth as something of a loose-limbed interloper in the Bax canon, Handley will make you think again, such is the muscular rigour he locates in this lovable creation. At the same time, I revelled in the playful affection, rhythmic bite and pagan splendour of both outer movements (terrific brass) – and what eloquence and passion Handley draws from the BBC Philharmonic in the dappled seascape of the central Lento moderato.

Revelations abound, too, in the Fifth. Like Lloyd-Jones before him (Naxos, 7/00), Handley plots a superbly inevitable course through the first movement, albeit with even greater snap, polish and emotional clout (sample the brazen fervour in and around the recapitulation at 4 before 38, or 12'15"). At the start of the slow movement (an unforgettable inspiration) the glinting brilliance and sheen of the orchestral playing really do take the breath away, as does the richness of the lower strings in the first subject (the violas truly cantabile as marked). An errant trumpet at 1 after 38, or 7'41", notwithstanding, the finale is stunning, its whirlwind Allegro a veritable bevy of cackling demons; indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Handley sound quite so feisty and uninhibited in the studio.

The bass ostinato that launches the Sixth picks up where the epilogue of the Fifth left off. Handley steers a taut course through this stormy first movement, though in some ways Norman Del Mar’s recording (Lyrita, 5/67 – nla) got closer still to the essence of Bax’s driven inspiration (warts and all, it evinces a lean hunger that remains compelling). Under Handley, the succeeding Lento has a gentle radiance that is very affecting, more semplice than molto espressivo and less indulgent than some may like (then again, that’s not this conductor’s way). However, it’s in the innovatory finale where Handley pulls ahead of the competition, cannily keeping some power in reserve for the clinching return of the introductory material at fig 34, or 11'05", and locating a transcendental wonder in the epilogue (suddenly the finale of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth has never seemed closer).

Coming to Handley’s Seventh so soon after Lloyd-Jones’s enjoyable Naxos version (A/03) reinforced for me the difference between the convincing and utterly convinced. This is wonderfully wise and characterful music-making, the first movement in particular sounding for all the world as if it was set down in a single take. There’s bags of temperament about this performance, as well as an entrancing freedom, flexibility and purposefulness that proclaim an intimate knowledge of and (more crucially) total trust in the composer’s intentions. If you love the Seventh, you’ll adore what Handley makes of it, I promise. The BBC Philharmonic respond with unflagging spirit and tremendous body of tone, and not even the occasional ‘noise off’ can break the spell.

A majestic Tintagel and rollicking account of the 1936 Rogue’s Comedy Overture complete the feast. Disc five houses an hour-long conversation about Bax the symphonist between the conductor and BBC presenter Andrew McGregor. Now and again, I found myself hankering after a slightly tighter focus (and in No 2 there are a couple of intriguing departures from my copy of the miniature score – the published parts apparently constitute something of a textual minefield and are full of such tiny inconsistencies); otherwise, Stephen Rinker’s engineering does fabulous justice to Bax’s rivetingly imaginative and highly individual orchestration (particularly towards the lower end of the spectrum).

Truth to tell, I’m still reeling from the impact of this magnificent set; its insights are copious, Chandos’s layout is ideal (with none of the symphonies split between discs) and the price is tempting, too. All involved deserve our heartiest gratitude, and I can guarantee that Handley’s Bax will continue to reward, excite and stimulate for many years to come.

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