Bax – The Symphonies

Sir Arnold Bax – The Symphonies, Chados Records CHAN 10122(5), 2003
5 disc, Symphony #1 – #7 plus two incidental works

Sir Arnold Bax. I’d not heard of him when – many years ago – I walked into a local Tower Records store to browse the classical section. I got to talking with Mike, the classical music manager of the store – there were such people then – and as we chatted I  was flipping through the CDs.

“Say, who’s this?” I asked, pulling a CD from the bin.

“Arnold Bax, English composer, pretty good.” Mike answered.

I like many English composers, and I’d come to trust his judgement so I bought what appeared to be the first of several CDs of Bax work. It was volume 1 of tone poems played by the Ulster Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bryden Thomson, on Chandos Records. Wonderful stuff! In a few days I was back at the store, buying several more discs of Bax music, and eventually bought all of them. The recordings by Thompson and Ulster were the only ones available, which was no problem since they were very good. I listened to Bax’ work often, those became some of my favorite classical CDs. All the program music, all the concertos, and especially the symphonies.

Then in 2003 Chandos released this set, with the BBC Philharmonic, lead by Vernon Handley, doing all seven symphonies plus Tintagel and the Rogue’s Comedy Overature (the last two used to fill out the fourth disc). Also included is a fifth disc with an hour-long interview with Handley, who talks about Bax, his music, the orchestra’s preparations for recording it and more. Fascinating stuff.

Thompson and Handley take a slightly different approach to the music, and both do a fine job of presenting it. Chandos and Handley have now recorded the tone poems (two volumes) and other works by Bax. These, as well as this set of the symphonies, are available either on CD or as lossless downloads. See Chandos Records, Bax+ Handley for the listing. The Thompson recordings can be found by a search for Bax + Thompson.

It’s sometimes difficult to characterize classical music in a way that makes any one composer, or work, stand out from the crowd. This is modern classical music, by which I mean it was written in the first third of the 20th century, it is powerful, sweeping, melodic, almost romantic in it’s composition. Both orchestras due the composer justice, I’m not sure one set is “definitive” over the other. The sound quality on the Chanods set may be slightly better, though it may depend on your sound equipment to show you the difference.

The symphonies of Sir Arnold Bax were also recorded on Naxos conducted by David Lloyd Jones. I prefer either of the Chandos recordings. However, for most people, any Bax will be good Bax. If you’ve not had the chance to try this composer, do so. The tone poems are very approachable, the symphonies strong and beautiful. It’s a shame this music isn’t in the repertory of many (any?) U.S. orchestras, so it could be more widely heard, but we can be grateful for these recordings.

As mentioned above, over the years this music has attained, for me, the status of “old favorites”. It may well do the same for you.

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
This entry was posted in Classical Music, Review and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Bax – The Symphonies

  1. Art Scott says:

    I like Bax’s work, but find the tone poems to be much stronger than the symphonies. His evocative nature/landscape pieces like The Garden of Fand, Mediterranean and Tintagel are superb. The latter is probably his most popular work, and deservedly so. In this genre it ranks with the best of Dvorak and Sibelius’s Tapiola, a compact masterpiece. I’m surprised you didn’t mention his two excellent film scores, Oliver Twist (the 1948 David Lean classic with Alec Guiness & Robert Newton), and Malta G.C.

  2. Richard says:

    I hadn’t forgotten the film scores, I was saving them for a Saturday Soundtrack feature.

    You’re right about the tone poems, they are very good indeed. This symphony set does include Tintagel, well played. To your list of excellent tone poems, I’d add one or two by Delius, perhaps Brigg Fair and Summer Night on the River.

  3. I’ve seen this set, even held it in my hand. Now that both you and Art have weighted in on it’s quality, another order gets sent to AMAZON.

  4. Richard says:

    George, I bought mine from Archiv Music, my choice for classical. They are having a sale now.

  5. Art Scott says:

    George, I was commenting on the music, not the recording. Most of my experience with Bax (and other 20th century English composers) comes from LPs on the incomparable Lyrita label. But Chandos/Thomson is a reliable choice.
    My usual internet CD source is H&B Direct, also having a sale.

  6. Everybody is having a sale!

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