Vernon Handley Records Arnold Bax’s Symphonies

0 of 5 stars

The Seven Symphonies
Rogue’s Comedy Overture

BBC Philharmonic
Vernon Handley

Recorded between January 2002 and September 2003 in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester

Reviewed by: Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs

Reviewed: October 2003
[4 CDs + Bonus]
Duration: 4 hours 55 minutes
[plus a 61-minute CD on which Vernon Handley discusses Bax’s symphonies with Andrew McGregor]

To highlight the 50th anniversary of Sir Arnold Bax’s death (on 3 October 1953), Chandos has published this box of his seven numbered symphonies by this underrated composer.

This is already the fourth recorded Bax symphony cycle (excepting that Lyrita did not record numbers 3 and 4). The others – from Bryden Thomson (also Chandos), and, more recently, on Naxos from David Lloyd-Jones – have made these superb symphonies available to an international audience.

Chandos’s second complete set also pays tribute to a conductor who is one of the most devoted and prolific Bax-pioneers: Vernon Handley; he recorded Bax’s Fourth Symphony as far back as 1964 (with the Guildford Philharmonic). This integral recording, without doubt, represents the fulfilment of a long-held dream for Handley. The first Chandos cycle was originally offered to him, but then given to Thomson, since Handley was supposed to record the Bax symphonies for EMI. Likewise, Naxos offered Handley a Bax cycle, but he couldn’t accept, being bound to EMI.

However, EMI’s proposal came to nothing, due to a change of EMI management. At least, in 1986 and 1988, Handley was given a chance to produce Bax choral works and Spring Fire for Chandos. Fifteen years later, Handley was invited to record Tintagel and the Third Symphony for BBC Music Magazine. The recording turned out to be so convincing that the BBC Philharmonic and Chandos, decided to co-produce a new, complete cycle of Bax´s symphonies under Handley.

This means something, certainly if we consider that Bax still has not gained recognition as one of the most important symphonists.

Immediately you note Handley´s masterly disposition of tempos. Bax did not like metronomic speeds and marked his scores with hundreds of nuances and subtle fluctuations of tempo. This has led to some exaggeration by the not-so-numerous conductors of Bax, and many commentators have accused Bax of writing rhapsodic or incoherent music. Handley reveals Bax’s markings as they were intended – with discretion. So often Handley finds precisely the speed that is the most helpful to the expression of the music; in general, he also observes those relationships between sections and movements to full satisfaction. The tempos are fluent, but not in haste. This is of much help, in particular, for the slow movements, which under other conductors tend to be too slow – for me, this impression was similar to the difference between a Haydn slow movement conducted by Furtwängler and Roger Norrington. Under Handley, fast movements are usually exciting and forward-moving, but never hurried, so that detail is clearly audible. Also, Handley regulates musical energy to cleverly chart climaxes. (This technique belongs to the ‘secret knowledge’ of conductors and is, for instance, one of the reasons why Celibidache’s Bruckner performances were convincing in concert even if one didn’t always agree with his slow tempos.)

Handley is much more daring than Thomson who removed much of the elan and vigour of the finales by being too self-controlled and restrained. However, I have some doubts regarding Handley’s accounts of the Third and Sixth: The introduction of No.3 is taken so quickly as if Handley would like to come into the Allegro moderato as soon as possible. Also the finale’s ‘epilogue’ comes quite unsentimental – as he explains in the interview, to try a different concept than, for instance, Barbirolli. But I find Barbirolli´s recording with his Hallé Orchestra (December 1943/ January 1944) much more moving and convincing, in particular the opening woodwinds (quasi improvisando), and I think the culture of Barbirolli’s string-playing, almost unearthly and visionary, can hardly be beaten (but remember the Hallé had gut strings … modern steel strings take away much from Bax´s imagination of sound.

I’ve been very happy to hear in Handley´s reading of the Sixth, for the very first time, exact tempo-relations within the first movement. Usually the introduction is taken far too quickly; here it sounds as it should – a kind of solemn procession followed by the Allegro not being too fast and firmly based on the violas’ quaver motif itself developed from the beginning ostinato – in fact, one of the main motifs of the entire symphony.

However, Handley’s conception of this introduction does not convince me so much; he does not juxtapose different sound layers. For instance, he treats the ostinato motif in the lower registers as equal to the bell-like winds/horn idea (with its ‘Dies Irae’ connotation), both being played molto tenuto. However, Bax gives ‘pesante’ in the ostinato, which, being played so earthbound and tenuto, does not give this obscure, ‘dance of giants’-like atmosphere. I am also in doubt about the ending of the first movement, which does not sound like a black-hole as in Lloyd-Jones’s effective reading of this. I do though like the ‘Siciliana’-like second movement (again, I found this similar to comparing Furtwängler’s and Norrington’s approach to the ‘Tristan’ Prelude). But I am fully convinced that the huge procession-like climax of the movement needs a corresponding tempo to the symphony’s introduction. I would assume the Andante con moto in 6/8 (at letter 11) should have the same pulse as the introduction Moderato in 3/2. But Handley takes this section so quickly that you can hardly hear the descending, sorrowful motif of the second violins (sitting, of course, on the right of the sound-picture). For me, this decision of Handley’s makes the entire symphony incoherent as a whole.

Listening to all these symphonies in such detail, I have only some question marks – and many more exclamation marks! My favourites are numbers 1, 2, 4 and 7; I consider them outstandingly realised here. If I am unconvinced by numbers 3 and 6, I would also have wished in No.5 for more breadth; Thomson is wonderful here. Also, the funeral-drums sound a bit muffled, and need to be a bit more dramatic, as in the First Symphony.

A welcome encore is the almost bohemian Rogue´s Comedy Overture. However, I don’t agree at all with Handley´s cinemascope-like reading of Tintagel, and the orchestra does not play well here. Tempos are slow, but without permitting details to be heard. I prefer very much Boult’s first version (from the ‘fifties) and the good old Barbirolli one.

Recorded in the dust-dry BBC Studio 7 in Manchester, this is a typical multi-miked recording with some artificial extra echo. Handley’s wonderful recording of Spring Fire was recorded in All Saints, Tooting, with its natural space and characteristic atmosphere. This is miles away from the results presented here. Handley retains the use (thank god) antiphonal fiddles, with cellos centre-left and violas centre- right, but you would not hear this at all until the first movement of No.3, where the strings appear in a fugato. This sound should be the fundament for wind and brass and available also in the tutti; however, such passages remain an exception. Furthermore, whenever the brass instruments appear, the strings get absorbed. We have to remember that in Bax´s times the horns, trumpets and trombones were more narrow-bored and about 50 percent less voluminous than today. It is absolutely unnatural if, in fortissimo from the whole orchestra, the only group you can clearly hear is the horn section. How absurd if three forte-blowing, muted trombones sound louder than the entire violin section! The result of this imbalance – which seems uncomfortably typical, in particular, for English and American orchestras – is the constant manipulation of the woodwinds and strings.

These Bax recordings can’t match the superb Chandos release of Zemlinsky´s Seejungfrau, conducted by Antony Beaumont – which I recommend as an example how such a recording should sound in terms of always distinguishing the various sound-sources within a room.

Chandos confesses to the “being at the forefront of technology”, in recordings, which only unmasks an unhealthy, almost fanatic belief in ‘progress’ (the curse of ‘Karajanism’, I guess). The danger of this is to overlook what we may loose by developing ‘improvements’ and giving up old standards.

However, Vernon Handley has finally recorded Arnold Bax’s symphonies; something to celebrate in itself – for both the music and for Handley’s life-long devotion to it.

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