Sir Arnold Bax was one of Britain’s most individual composers. Hearing a few bars of one of his mature, Celtic infused scores is often enough for you to say, “ah, Bax”. But in 1907, as a well-heeled emigré wannabe composer “battening on the fleshpots of Dresden”, as we are told in Lewis Foreman’s excellent sleeve notes, his influences and musical flavour were distinctly Russian – indeed, his landlady was convinced he was one! In Germany he also got to hear two movements of Mahler’s Sixth and something of the ambition of that work infuses this, his first attempt at a symphony. It was Bax’s practice to orchestrate only when he had a performance in view, and in the absence of such, the piano score languished – until now, thanks to the conductor Martin Yates.
It’s a big, sprawling work, in places in need of a trim, but it’s brimming with memorable material such as the leaping opening theme of the first movement or the Ravelian waltz that forms the basis of the scherzo. The whole work is most convincingly realised for the orchestra. Bax was a master colourist and that this comes over here is a credit to Yates. It may not have so many of those “ah, Bax” moments, but when they come (especially in the noble second movement) they point the way forward to his mature symphonic works and the tone poems (Christmas Eve in particular).
Conducting and recording here are authoritative, as you would expect from Dutton. Yates has brought us convincing reconstructions of E J Moeran’s Second Symphony and works by Ireland and Cyril Scott, making us so much the richer. The only work by Bax longer than this symphony is his ballet Tamara from the same period. A few gorgeous numbers have seen the light of day thanks to Chandos, but the whole is still awaiting orchestration – Mr Yates?