Spring Symphonies: 47/60 - Bax: symphony No 3

There's not much to say about Bax personally that I didn't say in my thoughts on his Sixth symphony about this time last year.  You can read that here:

That symphony represents I think the peak of his symphonic achievement. This, his Third premièred in 1929 represents probably his most accessible.  It was written on his first visit to the white sands of Morar.  But the time Bax had written this he'd made some orchestral works of great note and obviously two earlier symphonies.  This was, I think, Bax under a head of creative and inventive orchestral steam.

It opens with a serpentine bassoon solo of great intrigue and seemingly never ending invention, the clarinet joins in too.  The flute repeats and the oboe decorates and we have a most magical wind ensemble opening the symphony.  A more challenging phrase comes out of the woodwork, and gathers itself up into that most affecting of Baxian techniques - keening woodwind, a strong bass propelling the orchestra and strings providing attack into a climax which includes the percussion.  The march feeling is reinforced and the music moves with such alacrity but losing none of its form or flavour.  Bax has the power to move us wherever he wishes.  The effect is brilliant - like being bowled along on the crest of wave.  I'm always struck by his sparring facility with the low brass.  Hw can take the music along too just by adding tambourine in the least expected mood swing and then back to darkening brass.  His ability just to dissipate that energy is remarkable too and form full orchestra down to a string quartet without even a hint of a gear change.

The strings come in with a superbly thick tune of great weight and luxurious texture.  The counter is darker still.  It is beautifully still - as still as the beginning of the movement was active.  It slows and dries up - winds and brass overlap but the mood is one of a tender glow - a distant sunset or a lover's arms - it hardly matters.  The embrace of this music is potent and uniquely Bax. A horn call surmounts but aids transition - not Straussian in it's bluster but almost an underplayed obbligato.  The movement feels as though it is coming close to completion with this blissful slow interlude but Bax has plenty left in the tank.  As the march remnants fade to darkness, the key modulates and in a swirl of harps (heard for the first time) the opening is more distant and haunting in its repeat.  It's a truly magical transition and the opening woodwind canon is taken on by distant dark strings.  And then in a madden tumultuous section trumpets and trombones and that opening phrase which seems to reflect  itself are repeated to a climax which is crowned (if that's the word) by an anvil.  The full orchestra enjoys romps away for a while only to be undercut by the second slow subject which seems to thwart its attempts to run away with itself, a deep set rocking rhythm pulls us in a different direction and everything seems unstable for a moment - a pregnant pause and a dramatic tremolo seem to suggest a big finish.  Descending trombones and winds seal it, but drums yeild to the first theme in full garb - it's quite brilliant and jubilant to the point where the march gets a Holstian grandeur, strides forward reeking of Empire and signs off with a swing of the hat and the movement ends with aplomb. 

There’s nothing in this music to suggest that Bax wasn’t at this stage a supreme symphonist - though I have to admit that the anvil still sounds a bit odd to me even after all these years of appreciation.  It’s easy to see with this kind of technical facility and grip on his material and it’s pacing he might have been seen as a natural leader for the British symphonic tradition.  His music went to to become spare and touch and a deal darker still than this.

The second movement is set in motion with a horn solo: somewhat pastoral but the rhythm of pizzicato and then arco strings beneath suggest something a deal more domestic.  the horns serenade each other and trumpet runs a fanfare of earthy beauty and then celesta and strings invoke a glistering landscape. all the elements come together somewhat in rhapsodic mood.  Its not highly emotive music but it’s motion and colour suggest a calm serenity not an turbulent sea.  The music moves through so many colours via orchestral combinations I doubt you’d hear anywhere else.  bad the supreme commander of his orchestration fills the ear with luscious short-lived it disguises the relatively undemonstrative melodies in play.  The movement becomes more ardent and slightly more demonstrative to a climax on horns and orchestra with drums and basses beneath.  Nothing much has got us here but the view has been lovely.  I guess one might cite this movement as needing more to this point.  A moment of string led stormy weather passes quickly to regain it’s composure.  Harps and celesta usher in more rhapsodic material.  The horns- predominant in this movement - move it through it’s shades including a wonderful hushed passage which darks with the inclusion of winds - takes my breath away.  The remainder of the movement is on a slow wind down.  The dissolution is is somewhat warm emotionally but no more than that, but utterly comforting.  It is a beautiful movement where virtually nothing happens, but what does is magnificently calm and fluid, it is restful beyond the manufactured calm of Brahms or Rachmaninov.  I’m not even sure I’d call Bax a Late Romantic composer or one of eth nationalist movement after that.  

The final movement begins dramatically and has some of the stress that we’ve missed in the previous movement.  Low strings drum out an obstinate, which is picked up and sounds for a moment like Vaughan Williams (though the latter would never have added a xylophone).  A tune seems to be getting through and  it’s magnificent colours keep distracting me.  It has jaunt aspect and bold confidence as it strides out.  As the music accelerates it retards too - it’s very odd.  There’s a fanfare and the material is varied and repeated but not much.  There are all sorts of reasons why this music is familiar to us  - it sounds like it’s extracted every film sound track from 1950s rom-coms - when actually it was aped in them.

The music breaks down into it’s components for some gorgeous reflection on strings and winds of what has gone before.  There’s surety of touch here by Bax.  Marvellous.

The music picks up again, again the musical material may not vary much but it has the legs to move along at quite slick.  But the danger here is that the music starts to fall over it’s own invention.  The brass led climax would seem to take us to a final few bars harps and low strings and another divine passage for winds in breathtaking beautiful textured layers.  I could listen to this progress all night, but it fails to close the movement.  Indeed it builds and side-steps a final cadence.  The key change takes us to a similar place high strings over the string obstinate this time but a conclusion seems just as far out of grasp.  The mood is broken briefly and then back to a steady tread, elaborated with horn tracery.  The winds and xylophone go to a place of exotic spareness.  The effect is other worldly: time registers in a different way even with the steady tread still there.  It is extraordinarily compelling orchestration and I;m spellbound n these moments - I don’t want them to end.  In fact the movement has been fading away so slowly we scarcely notice.  The horn picks up where a solo violin leaves off.  I’m in no doubt this will be enough - but the string tremolo swells and the brass seem to want to say more - it’s a phrase from the first movement that concludes this symphony. Unity of a sorts but I for one don’t much care how it ends - the individual passages in this symphony are so powerful I scarcely notice the repetition and relatively unambitious melodic adventuring.

Every time I return to this symphony it brings me back to something deep in my childhood in rural England, composed in Scotland by a Londoner who was absorbed in the Celtic and Irish movement of the time.  It all seems so unlikely, but it feels so right.  I can’t recommend it too highly.

Here's a link to the master of all Bax conductors, Vernon Handley (though there are some very good recordings about of this symphony) - it's the first movement but you can find the other two pretty easily on the side bar.  A magical realisation of a magical score:



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