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Conductor Vernon Handley leads the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, opening the Bax symphonies up to a wider audience

Composer:   Bax
Repertoire: Symphonies
Artists: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Rating:   5/5
Genre: Orchestral
Label: CHAN 10122(5)

The 20th-century romantic composer’s atmospheric seven symphonies are known by a relatively small handful of music lovers. Yet if you dare to lift the lid on these unfamiliar works, they reveal startling treasures, as rich as anything to come from the pens of Mahler or Bruckner.

The opening of the first is undoubtedly 20th-century Russian in flavour – powerful and foreboding, giving way to a Straussian or Mahlerian string and brass episode. There are even hints of Korngold. But really Bax sings with his own unique, highly romantic, voice. At over 30 minutes, the first symphony is no small-fry, but Handley takes you by the hand and guides you over every nuance and subtlety. In his capable hands, the music sounds majestic – each of the symphonies is a large-scale work requiring careful planning and shaping, and this recording really does give the sense of a journey.

Listening to the set, you’ll get an impression that the earlier symphonies are more dramatic than the final three. The first is indeed the most obvious of his works and probably the best to start with as it gives the novice Bax listener the greatest access to his symphonic language. But where from there? Vernon Handley suggests trying No.3 next: ‘This one shows Bax as a much more serious composer and as a master constructor.’ Then move on to four and five – four is much more extrovert and five is a calmer, more simple view of symphonic writing. After No.5, Handley suggests returning to number two and then six, ‘the two greatest symphonies. The listener will now be able to understand Bax’s language and will be able to travel along with him. Six, to me is the greatest because of its superb structure.’ It is indeed an awesome creation with a rousing, almost hell-raising introduction, an elegiac Lento and an epic final movement, an odyssey in itself. The BBC Phil moves between moods seamlessly and the textures resulting from the music melt in the ears. Handley caresses the music and it responds. The final seventh is Bax’s reserved way of taking a bow – a powerful, yet understated demonstration of his incredible large-scale symphonic tableaux.