Symphony No. 4. Overture to a Picaresque Comedy. Nympholept.
Royal Scottish National Orch/David Lloyd-Jones, cond.
NAXOS 8.555343 (B) (DDD) TT: 64:38
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Fate has not treated Arnold Bax well. From the Twenties to the Forties, critics considered him one of the leading modern lights and a major symphonist. Vaughan Williams dedicated his powerful fourth symphony to Bax. But many things conspired against Bax, including a creative block toward the end of his life as well as the reaction against his kind of Romantic modernism after the second world war.
Unusual for his time, Bax wrote in almost every genre, including major cycles of both tone poems and symphonies. I confess to not caring for the early tone poems, like Nympholept ("caught by nymphs," 1912), because I dislike the moony, swoony harmonic idiom, typical of the last gasp of Victorian Romanticism. On the other hand, I have to admit it a superb example of its kind, written with a steely sense of thematic progression, unlike, say, the tone poems of Bantock. The mastery of thematic transformation and the hold over the larger architecture of the piece reveal, beneath the hothouse languor, a symphonist.
Harriet Cohen, one of Bax's mistresses, described Overture to a Picaresque Comedy (1930) as a "pastiche." Henry Wood had asked Bax for something similar to Strauss's Til Eulenspiegel. I think Cohen sold the piece short and Wood got more than he had asked for. If the world were just, this should be a hugely popular piece. I treasure an old LP conducted by Igor Buketoff, but Lloyd-Jones yields very little. It sparkles, with a vivacious running figure similar to the opening one in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro overture. It keeps up the fun for nine minutes, a task rather difficult to bring off. Bax has covered a vast distance from Nympholept to this, and all for the better. If it's not quite Eulenspiegel, very little else is.
This is my first encounter with the fourth symphony (at this point, I've heard all the others except the third). I can't talk knowledgably about the main previous recordings by Handley and Bryden Thomson. I can say that in general Thomson's conducting fails to click with me, usually because of weak rhythm, one reason why I didn't rush out and buy his recording. Bax experts, for some reason, consider the fourth the weakest of the symphonic cycle. Based on Lloyd-Jones's performance, I don't understand why. Bax claimed inspiration from the sea. Again, I don't get it myself, probably because it sounds like neither La Mer nor The Flying Dutchman, but it certainly bowls me over as a piece of symphonic construction a complex work by a composer who has so mastered symphonic form and movement that he can afford to forget about textbook faithfulness. The first movement bristles with themes. Keith Anderson, in excellent though brief liner notes, talks about first and second subject groups, but I don't believe this is what's going on. I can, however, see why Vaughan Williams dedicated his fourth to Bax. The themes in both seem generated from an Ur-theme, never directly stated. Thus, the themes in Anderson's "second subject group" relate to those in the first. The proportions of exposition, development, and recap are idiosyncratic, with the lion's share of the movement by far going to the development. Indeed, the opening re-appears roughly one minute from the finish in a sixteen-minute piece. Furthermore, the movement is as much about characteristic rhythms as it is about melodic themes.
The second movement unites, unusually, Delian chromatic harmonies (particularly a bass line in thirds descending by semitones) to pentatonic themes. However, Bax's architecture holds up much more sturdily than that of Delius. It's in roughly A-B-A form, but its interest lies in the thematic byplay. Ordinarily, I hate music with this kind of harmony (which I associate with whining), but Bax wins me over here. The finale opens with vigor. The overall structure seems somewhat idiosyncratic to me, but it does indeed hang together. Bax comes up with a contrapuntal tour-de-force. Hardly any theme gets time alone. It always jostles against at least one other important idea. Again, rhythms as well as melodic shapes make up the argument. Bax creates his rhetorical emphaseswhat's important at any one timealmost entirely through orchestration.
None of Bax's works, with the possible exceptions of Tintagel and The Garden of Fand, is done all that often, especially the symphonies, so it's hard to judge Lloyd-Jones on a reasonable scale. I will say I enjoyed his readings very much for their own sake, and I certainly prefer his more insistent rhythmic approach to what I think of as Thomson's flaccidity. I think this one of the outstanding Naxos entries, and at Naxos prices it encourages me to sample the entire symphonic set.
S.G.S. (July 2002)