Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was a prolific composer, producing works in every musical genre except opera. But over the years he has become best known as a composer of tone poems. This is Volume One of Chandos' two-volume set of the best of them. And the best of the works here is November Woods, wherein Bax captures a peculiar, almost Edwardian nostalgia and longing for a lost landscape. This seems almost contradicted by The Happy Forest, which has its own underlying melancholy. Arnold Bax was (and is) the master of the British tone poem. --Paul Cook
All four pieces date from between 1915 and 1921, with "Summer Music" written in this period, but only orchestrated in 1931. After this earlier period, which really is part of the impressionist movement, Bax moved on to concentrate on symphonies, writing 7 in all through the later 1930s. While the symphonies are sometimes very taking, I don't find them as attractive or concentrated as the musician's earlier conceptions. "November Woods" (1917) is my personal favorite among all of Bax's music. Spooky and dark, Thomson leads a fine performance that focuses on the contrapuntal writing underlying the chromatic, almost melodramatic harmonies. The interpretation enhances the piece and I prefer it to an alternative reading by David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos), which is more focused on the harmonies.
"The Garden of Fand" is an ambitious multi-theme work that Bax wrote between 1913 and 1916. Marking Bax's emergence as a mature artist, the score is prefaced with a prose poem about the work's subject, the sea (Fand's garden). "Fand" is a delicate, quasi-impressionist work that I think many will find appealing. "The Happy Forest" (1922) and "Summer Music" (1917, final version 1932) are both nature pieces, lasting about 10 minutes each, attractive and often memorable, although not quite as consistent as "November Woods" and "Garden of Fand."
While the Ulster Orchestra isn't known as a world class ensemble, I found their playing just excellent here. The strings are tight with good intonation, and the woodwinds play with delicacy and agility. The only criticism I'd make is of the first horn player who is pretty good in some solo passages, doesn't perfectly execute the theme that opens "Summer Music" -- but even that isn't at all bad.