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CD Review

Arnold Bax

Naxos 8.554093

Symphonies

  • Symphony #2
  • November Woods
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.554093 56:51
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Recently I started putting together a scrap book of articles and essays about music. In the process, I came across a series, "Going On Record" by James Goodfriend. His essays appeared in Stereo Review and I kept several from the late 70s. In "Play It Again, Claude" Goodfriend discusses the idea he calls "double composition". The notion is that composers are often influenced by music they've heard and will, unconsciously, snatch a fragment of a melody then transform it into something of their own. For example, Richard Strauss' "Metamorphosen" was not a conscious reworking of the funeral march from Beethoven's "Eroica" – but there it is!

Now this phenomenon would be even less likely a conscious matter as we go back to the composition of Bax's 2nd Symphony. Recordings didn't exist in the numbers we have today, so composers couldn't listen and listen and listen to a piece. They might hear it once in their life but carry the tune in their heads for years before making it their own. (I wonder if any composers play music as they compose. I know I didn't when I composed folk music in the late 60s.)

It was serendipity that Goodfriend's article reappeared as I was working on a review of this recording. I had already written notes discussing Chaos Theory in an attempt to get a handle on this symphony. Chaos Theory is similar to "double composition" but differs by suggesting that sometimes a great notion* punctuates existence simultaneously from disparate sources. As I have listened to Bax's 2nd Symphony I made note of Delius, Mahler, Vaughan Williams and Tchaikovsky – all at different moments taken in different directions. Then research began to suggest even deeper examples of Chaos operating.

First, as I listened this music I began to think of parallels to Vaughan Williams' "Job". Specifically, there are times in the symphony where VW's portrait of Satan and Hell come to mind. I was just certain that Bax must have heard "Job" and was influenced by it. Research, however, made for different conclusions. The Second Symphony of Bax was premièred in the U.S. in 1929 and was composed between 1924 and 1926. "Job" was composed between 1927 and 1930! Now, I must say that in toto the Second Symphony of Bax is not like VW at all. In fact, Delius sounds more like Bax than does VW. Anyway, I found it interesting that some similar musical ideas seem to have been floating around at the same time from two very different composers. Did Vaughan Williams hear any of the music as he composed? If so it most certainly wasn't from any recordings he had. Instead it would have been from a concert he attended or perhaps he read the score somewhere, or perhaps it was chaos.

The insert notes were not terribly helpful to me so I have made an attempt at describing the music. This was written before going to the Bax web site and I suggest you might want to check it out, too. The first movement opens in a foreboding way that soon gives into chaos! It is as if you were peering into hell. Then the music begins its way through several different places but all in the same locale. The movement is largely "majestic" and often I thought of "Tintagel". There is an eerie spirit that hovers over things, however, like Merlin casting spells here and there. Around 3:50 minutes into it a percussive eruption occurs that recalled a similar moment in the beginning of the 4th movement of Rachmaniov's 1st Symphony. Later the music swings into a tambourine chatter that is oriental more than gypsy-like. At 14:00 I hear some of the most beautiful music ever composed. At 16:00 there's a weird bassoon solo. If all of this seems episodic, I confess that Bax's Symphony seems episodic but held together by some underlying theme. I do not hear the inevitability of movement like in Beethoven. It is more like Delius having written a symphony (but Delius with a Mahlerian streak). The movement comes to a solitary, soft close. The second movement steals in so smoothly that it is seamless. The whole movement is soft, nostalgic, looking back on Camelot perhaps. At about 2:20 there is a moment that sends shivers up my spine. Still, there are sinister moments like at 8:20 when an earth shattering, Mahlerian moment interrupts the peace. Still, this is an exception to the movement's atmosphere. The third movement returns to a more militaristic atmosphere, similar to the first. It opens even more menacingly, I could sense the Night on Bald Mountain when Satan appears. The symphony closes with an underpinning by an organ (excellently dubbed) in an atmosphere of desolation. It is devastating. In fact, I noticed in my notes that I frequently jotted down "Mahler's 6th". Remember, however, that this is Mahler à la Delius (or is it the other way around?) Now if all this seems too poetic, I don't know how else to tell you about it.

The more I listen to this work, the more Chaos Theory comes to mind. There is a pervading atmosphere among the episodic moments. Distance, familiarity will enhance my appreciation of the music. Like the pieces in GO, the moments here develop a pattern as the pieces interrelate. It will take many, many listenings for me to fully appreciate the Second Symphony. Fortunately there is a lot of interest to keep me listening.

November Woods: I recall a particularly cold year. Late November saw patches of snow scattered about the brown tufts of grass. The trees were stark in their bare limbs as I walked through the forest. A slight breeze whispered, the sole sound on a gray morning. This is winter's whisper. Echoes of a Tapiola not yet written.

As I put finishing touches on the above, I was listening to this symphony again and started to read Keegan's book, The First World War. I began to think that Bax was signaling an end to the symphonies of Elgar, Stanford, Perry and the like. Bax's world is disturbing and disturbed. I look forward to this trail of thinking.

PS: If you have trouble reading between the lines, I highly recommend this disc. Neat stuff.

* With apologies to Ken Kesey.

Copyright © 1999, Robert Stumpf II

Trumpet