Over in England they're calling this recording the classical CD release of the year; maybe someone will think that highly of it here, too.
This re-release includes show-stopping renditions of the Symphonies 2 and 5 from Arnold Bax (1883-1953), one of Great Britian's lesser known but still magnificent composers from the first half of the 20th century. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Bax was hardly pastoral and completely without influence from Sibelius -- a composer that impressed many Brits in the 1930s -- as the first three minutes of the opening movement of Symphony 2 will tell you in its heaving and sighing romantic soundworld.
Bax maintained a kinship with Frederick Delius (1962-1934) during their collective lifetimes. He was, like Delius, a member of Britain's impressionist crowd taking up the mantle introduced by the French in the early 20th cenutry. Bax tended to mix Ireland-like English romanticism with Delius' brand of impressionism to give us regal scores likes Tintangel, Mediterranean, The Garden of Fand and November Woods, all romantic yet impressionstic enough to remind you over and over again of the composer's love of life and, especially, his love of the Scottish and Irish shores.
To the music at hand, Lyrita -- an English label that in the 1970s churned out great sounding LPs of then little known English composers -- release the Symphony No. 2 and 5, conducted by Myer Freedman and Raymond Leppard, respectively, in 1971 and 1972. These recordings impressed critics around the world and became favorites for audiophiles circa the 1970s -- before everyone turned to tape, then CD, then download (AKA the anti-audiophile crowd.) The recordings sound better today than ever -- exceptionally natural, wide-ranging and with a deep sound stage. The playing of the early 1970s London Philharmonic Orchestra is magnificen.
The Symphony No. 2 is a romantic three movement edifice full of bombast, sweep and high spirits. The openings movement is 18 minutes of powerhouse feelings, both heavy and light, with a dreamy quiet section in the middle. It's followed by an 11-minutes andante -- the only true andante Bax put in any of his seven symphonies -- and closes with more powerhouse and roughouse playing in the third movement labeled Pove largamente - allegro feroce. Freedman leads with expressive power and little reserve, focusing on the composer's feelings for life and love.
The Symphony No. 5 is, with the Symphonies 3 and 6, one of the best of Bax's full scale compositions for orchestra. It is more intellectual than most of his output, more succinct in its messaging (he tends to ramble in this respect) with all the romance and dynamism you'd expect from a composer that was probably a sexaholic, had several mistresses, and labeled himself a romantic in the dodecaphonic era in Europe. The Baroque specialist Leppard would not seem to be the ideal interpreter of a highly romanticized composer and he is surprisingly good here, attentive to the changing moods and intellectual capacity of the score.
This is a very satisfying release for lovers of romantic orchestral music and those that want to know more about either Bax or 20th century British orchestral music. If you have the slightest interest in any of this, buy or borrow this recording and get to know a lyrical, enthusiastic, mystical and romantic 20th century symphonist of high quality.