I only recently warmed up to this symphony, and much of the credit must go to David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra who recorded the work on Naxos 8.555343. The earlier recorded version by late Bryden Thomson with the Ulster Orchestra never really gripped me, and as other Thomson Bax recordings most certainly did, I always assumed the music was to blame.
However, listening to this newer recording, it seems that Thomson never quite got the measure of this work. It is a difficult piece – it lacks the ‘big tunes’ that characterize its predecessors even though there is plenty of melodic interest. More than any other Bax work this is a sea symphony (and Bax hardly ignored the sea in his other works), and it makes a lot more sense if you imagine you are looking out over the waves while listening to this. For this work ebbs and flows in many ways from a great undertow, to an undulating swirl, to the waves crashing on the pebbles, even to shoreline rock pools filling and emptying.
As such, it is a very satisfying tone poem. No, not on the level of Debussy’s La Mer, but not far below. More convincing sea music than Britten’s Sea Interludes (although I think the Britten pieces are better music overall). Bax’s greatest weakness is a tendency to meander; one senses a country walk with him would be filled with interuptions to look at a flower or explore a copse. Naturally enough, this weakens the symphonic structure and is frustrating if you are looking for the rigor of, for example, mid to late Sibelius. So it’s best not to think of his symphonies as symphonies at all (doing this actually greatly enhances a feel for Bax’s musical structure which is by no means as incoherent as implied by what I have already wrtitten!) and enjoy them as tone poems with symphonic tendencies. As late-Romantic manifestations of a nature lover’s fascination with the wilderness, they really are unsurpassed and wholly individual.