Bax’s third symphony – West Forest Sinfonia

Two years ago, I heard the Berkshire-based West Forest Sinfonia perform a concert of all-British music in the Great Hall at Reading University. Culminating in Bax’s rarely-heard Spring Fire, it was an excellent concert, and for a non-professional orchestra, the standard of playing was impressively high. Also impressive was the old brick hall itself, which – not nearly as cavernous as its name suggests – provided a great up-close-and-personal listening experience. 

It so happened that a few weeks ago I decided to check what this orchestra were up to, and I nearly fell off my chair. They were shortly coming back to Reading to play another piece by Bax. It’s one of my all-time favourites that I’ve loved since I was a teenager, and it’s virtually never performed live: the third symphony. The only time I’d heard it in concert was way back in 2003, with Vernon Handley conducting a student orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music. 

I wrote a long article about this symphony on Corymbus – which for several years after its premiere was widely performed and popular with audiences, under the baton of Henry Wood. But post-war, and post-Wood’s death, it faded into obscurity.

Strangely, I felt nervous as I drove to Reading. It’s an odd situation, to go and listen to a work you love this much when you’re accustomed to hearing from just a handful of recordings. You have to be prepared for it to sound different. Tempos might not be what you’re used to. Details might jump out that you’d never noticed before. I tried to remove expectations, and be prepared to hear this piece afresh.

It’s also strange knowing you’re likely one of a select few in the audience who know such a neglected work. Family and friends of the orchestra members may not have heard any Bax, or even heard of him. You end up feeling a little protective of the music, a bit concerned for its welfare. You worry that the performance won’t really show how special it is. And you know that such a complex piece can never mean as much to someone on a first hearing as it does to you – not when its contours have been so well digested over years of loving listening.

West Forest’s conductor, Philip Ellis, gave a frank pre-concert speech about discovering the symphony, what a masterpiece he thought it was, and Bax’s endlessly inventive use of harmony. He also provided context about the composer’s turbulent love-life, citing a ‘catholic guilt’ about his extra-marital affairs in the score’s more anguished moments. Ellis clearly loved the piece, and told us that he chose to put it in the first half, so that the players were as fresh as possible to give it the best performance they could. He admitted that it was very difficult to put together, and get right – one possible reason why it’s never played by orchestras like his.

Well, Ellis and the West Forest Sinfonia really gave it their all. I chose a seat mid-way through the audience, and was perhaps only ten metres away from the musicians, able to absorb every detail. And my God. WHAT a score this is. 

With recordings, it’s easy to forget the raw, heart-pounding power of that first movement when heard in the flesh – how viscerally thrilling those wild, roller-coaster passages are, with the ostinatos grabbing you by the scruff of the neck and giving you a savage shake. Ellis kept his tempos admirably brisk – Vernon Handley always warned against the dangers of wallowing in Bax, you’ve got to keep pulling the music along – and he did so brilliantly. His left hand shaped each flourishing melodic line, and he seemed to smile almost constantly throughout. It was clear he really believed in this music.

The only disappointment in the first movement was a small but important one – the anvil strike at the climax didn’t seem to be an anvil. I couldn’t see what was used, but it appeared to be hand-held, and had a weak sound. You want a real metallic clang here. Admittedly Bax made things hard for himself in calling for such an unusual instrument. (Interestingly he originally scored a cymbal crash – a much more obvious choice – but the manuscript has anvil penciled in instead, seemingly in Henry Wood’s hand, from the first rehearsals. I have my own theory as to why this was changed – Bax’s approach to scoring throughout gives us strange, shadowy sounds, and the weirdness of the anvil, the hardness of its timbre suits the atmosphere of primeval ruggedness running right through this movement).

But such instrumental subtleties blossomed beautifully in the second movement, with its softly glowing chords, tinkling celesta, and lush divided strings. Special mention must go to the solo horn and trumpet players, both of whom have terrifyingly exposed quiet solos lines and who rose to the challenge magnificently. When the trumpet solo shone through with its woodwind and brass choir, like sunlight falling on a pristine landscape, it brought tears to my eyes.

And so it came to the boisterous last movement, full of vivacious, joyous energy, transitioning audaciously to the serene epilogue, which Ellis again took with an admirably firm tempo. After the ear is accustomed to so many crunching chromatic harmonies, it’s a shock to hear this wash of diatonic loveliness – a real step beyond. In a way it’s a gallingly crude device with which to resolve the symphony’s narrative, but Bax gets away with it because this music is just so beguilingly magical, with its passing dark clouds reminding us of where we’ve come from even as he takes us away to a place of impossible tranquility. The reprise of the searching, ambiguous four-note figure of the opening movement, once thrashed to within an inch of its life, now comes back like a ghost and, in the very last bars, finally resolves itself into an attainment of sublime peace. 

It was, simply, a wonderful performance of an astonishing symphony. You’ll forgive me in my child-like excitement of hearing this work live if I say that the second half could never live up to that. William Alwyn’s short Autumn Legend for cor anglais and strings is a pleasant enough work, without ever setting my world on fire – but even after the interval break, its subdued sound-world seemed weak compared to the epic journey we’d just been on. Of course it would have made much more sense as a concert opener to get things started, but given Ellis’s reasons for switching, I can hardly complain. Elgar’s In The South, on the other hand, made for a suitably rousing finish. Its surging violin lines and good-natured extroversion was a sunny Mediterranean send-off that nicely complemented Bax’s clouded mountains. 

I urge anyone in south-east England to keep your eye on West Forest Sinfonia – they are a very good ensemble, with a fantastic conductor unafraid to put on less familiar repertoire. Wouldn’t it be nice if members of our national press could pop on a train from Paddington and review concerts like this? Whatever differences in finesse exist between this group and a professional orchestra, they’re not nearly as great as you’d think. And they are more than made up for by being able to hear such a rarity, up close in a bright-sounding concert hall, given a performance of such genuine dedication and conviction. Perhaps the most revealing fact about the afternoon was that there was barely any coughing or throat-clearing from the audience – and that’s at the height of the cold season. In my view, that’s a sign of people’s attention being gripped, and not lagging: the highest praise. 

It makes you think. Who needs a new London concert hall? Who needs London at all? I may be biased by my long-term love affair with Bax’s third symphony, but the £15 I paid here felt as good value for money as hearing any of the best ensembles, anywhere.