There are already three fine reviews here that tell all one needs to know about this disc, so ordinarily I wouldn't write yet another. But with Bax I make an exception, because here is a very fine composer whose music has fallen into obscurity, and if not for Chandos, almost into oblivion.
The label has generously assembled five of his most popular and accessible works which include three of his most masterful works: November Woods, The Garden of Fand and Tintagel. Previously the major works were scattered over several discs with lesser tone poems. Each of these is a superlative work of very complex orchestration, at which Bax was second to no one. He was a genius at playing the orchestra as an instrument and creating new sounds, colors and textures that vividly illustrated the stories and aspects of nature that inspired him. His scores are right up there with Debussy, Ravel and Richard Strauss. The disc also includes the rousting Happy Forest and a mellow, bucolic Summer Music that finds him an inheritor of Delius.
Bax's musical output falls somewhat into two periods, and this is the music of the young Bax, who was a sensitive, romantic youth inspired by Irish legend, nymphs and dryads and all the mythological creatures that so fascinated late nineteenth and early twentieth century artists and composers. Here is a passionate young man who became so infatuated with a touring ballerina that he followed her all the way back to Russia. And so he wrote large, sweeping tone poems that were full of feeling and an almost uncanny pictorial quality, which were widely performed in his day but which fell into neglect as Modernism became the thing after The Great War.
The advent of Modernism caused the eclipse of many fine late Romantic and Postromantic composers who simply fell out of style. Classical music can be very much like fashion and furniture, where the previous style becomes absolutely abhorrent to the current mode and that is more or less what happened to Bax's music; it was so last-year. This is unfortunate but at least Chandos had preserved his legacy for us to hear.
A word about the music itself for those who are new to Bax and are just trying new things. Although his music is tonal and easy to get into, Bax is not a composer of Big Tunes, but rather an orchestral colorist whose music flows and swirls in long passages. For this reason it may take a few listenings before it all comes together, but it is worth it. There is a later side to Bax's music and that is the seven symphonies, all composed after the war. One does not usually start with them, for they are generally dark, cold, forbidding works (though no more difficult that Shostakovich) and are as bracing as a North Sea storm. But what else might one expect from a man who went to the Scottish Highlands in Winter to compose these works. They are best saved for later, with No. 3 of special merit.
The performances are excellent. With Bax we are lucky that the conductors who have championed him have all been top notch and fully understanding of what this music is about. The sound, as all Chandos sound, is the best. For a later listening if you can get a hold of it, is the Lyrita recording of Sir Adrian Boult conducting Bax. With due respect for Thomson, Handley and Lloyd-Jones, his Garden of Fand is one of the most magical, spine-chilling performances I have ever heard.