BAX Symphony in F
It is often the case that the first symphonic essay of any aspiring composer tends to be long. Nevertheless, Bax’s Symphony in F must be one of the most extraordinarily ambitious initial canvases for any composer at the beginning of his career. At just over 78 minutes, it reflects the extended projections of Mahler and Rachmaninov, some of which Bax certainly encountered on the European continent.
Written during a love affair in 1907, and time spent in Dresden, Bax’s Symphony was left complete in short score (partly at University College, Cork, where I saw it as a young lecturer, and partly in private possession) but has been very sympathetically orchestrated here by Martin Yates. Although as yet stylistically inchoate (one can, as Lewis Foreman points out in his excellent booklet-notes, detect strong elements of Glazunov and Strauss), the work is a fascinating mélange of rich thematic material and developmental processes in which Bax’s individual voice is often discernible. A dramatic first movement, almost balletic in demeanour, is a wash of orchestral colour. The second movement, to me much more Baxian in gesture (and somewhat more redolent of his Celtic Twilight obsession), is a stronger lyrical essay, while the demonic third, inspired by Hofmannsthal’s Der Tor und der Tod (‘The Fool and Death’), is distinctly Straussian in its Till Eulenspiegel eccentricities. The last movement, by far the longest at 25 minutes, is an elongated fantasia where the thematic ideas are treated cyclically. A demanding work, it is performed with energy and empathy by Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. For any lover of early-20th-century British symphonic music, this
is a must.