Whether Bax's symphonic poems were ever used as sound-tracks for 1950's films I have no idea, but that's the sort of sound they have. They are obviously 20th century music, but of a fairly traditional and romantic kind. They evoke legends in a rather superficial way, and I suppose they have `atmosphere' of much the kind that tourist books about legends have. They take us in turn to Cornwall, Ireland, a generalised pastoral scene of Greek legend, Scotland and the Chilterns. The composer was of East Anglian roots himself, and I would have thought that that part of England had plenty of individuality of its own, witness the poems of Crabbe to say nothing of the music of Britten. However if Bax's concept of East Anglia was less that marvellous coast than, say, Sudbury or Long Melford, it's easy to understand how he might have sought his inspiration further afield.
It is the duty, and it should be the pleasure, of a fair-minded reviewer to say at once that the performances here are excellent, and the recording too. It is particularly gratifying to me to be able to say again that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is well on the way to taking its place among the world's finer orchestras. These compositions call for a bold and rich sound, and that is forthcoming here, as is some fine solo work from the orchestral principals. All the same, what I look for in second-league music like this is something completely special in the readings, the kind of wizardry that Beecham could supply. Perhaps that will be the next step in this orchestra's progress. For now, there's nothing essential missing, and this disc should be a pleasant addition, moderately priced, to anyone's collection.
These symphonic poems are what I might term `intermediate' programme-music. They are not overtly representational as Strauss sometimes is, but the programme is more detailed and specific than in, say, Sibelius's Tapiola or The Oceanides, which can perfectly well be heard as `absolute' music, related in only a vague and impressionistic way to their titles and supposed themes. I find that I get the greatest enjoyment out of them if I secure a reasonably clear mental picture to start with of what they are about, and link the episodes in the music to that as they go along. Without some steering of this kind I doubt I could really identify, for example, `a tonal impression of the castle-crowned cliff of...Tintagel', or necessarily be able to distinguish it from the sea rising to overwhelm the island at another point. To obtain this mental image I naturally resort to the liner note, which does this basic job adequately. I have to say, on the other hand, that this short essay is not its author's best. Exactly what is Bax's relationship to Ireland, for instance? After reading a poem by Yeats at age 19 he appears to have `discovered in himself a strong Celtic identity'. What might this be, `a strong Celtic identity', and is it any different from suburbanite dreams of getting away from it all? And if `the garden of Fand is the sea' and later `Fand's garden is seen no more' we appear to be encountering some apocalyptic catastrophe. A bit more thought and care in the writing would have been welcome, considering that points like these have an important bearing on the music.
Niggles like this aside, this is a very fine disc in the most important departments, namely the performance and recording. At a bargain rate in particular it can be thoroughly recommended, and it may be quite a while before we hear these pieces played and recorded so well again.