WOW isn’t a word used
in classical music reviewing but this
Lyrita re-issue deserves it and I use
it because I’m of an age to have the
original 1968 vinyls, so there!
After playing the ‘brat’
card I must start with something unusual
from my pen when I say that the digital
remastering by Simon Gibson pulls even
more sonic range and detail from the
master tapes than are on the LPs.
My caveat - as usual
- is that one must use top quality DACs
and cabling from the digital source
but I played the vinyls on a Technics
ex-BBC with Shure as well as a GL-75
and Ortofon through a Quad series 4
to ancient ESL 57s.
The same middle and
back end was used with this CD with
a modest Cambridge Discmagic transport
and optical cables to Midiman, Meridian
and Beresford DACs before feeding the
Quad system. Re-test used SR Tech speakers
for better bass but the result was the
everything was more open and this is
rare so let us praise an engineer for
a change but do accord him the courtesy
of using appropriate gear.
Boult was always happier
with the 2nd symphony than
with the 1st. Some have suggested
that its ‘imperialism’ was the reason
but I disagree that it’s imperialist,
merely of its age. Boult’s analytical
nature perhaps found too little to do
My evidence lies in
his EMI recording of 1976 (CDM 7 6401
2) and the fact that he seldom conducted
it live, preferring to give way to his
friend ‘Johnny’ (Barbirolli) who was
of the right temperament for that side
of Elgar. Boult said that the best ‘Gerontius’
was Barbirolli’s because he captured
occasions and that wasn’t Boult’s way
in his official career. I shall refer
to his post-retirement period below
regarding Elgar’s 2nd.
Unlike his EMI Elgar
1st of 1976 Boult had the
freedom to conduct the LPO for Lyrita
on his own terms but with some familiar
Decca engineers of his earlier days.
He explored the sheer beauty of Elgar’s
struggle to get to a symphony. It is
perhaps less ‘in yer face’ than Davis
live with the LSO or the essential EMI
1962 7 64511 2 NPO with Barbirolli and
his glorious 1970 King’s Lynn Festival
recording on BBC Legends with live noises
and the resonance of the St Nicholas
Chapel but with the Hallé on
For example, in the
opening theme, then in its repetitions
in the large work, Boult refuses to
bash the timps as Barbirolli always
did yet Boult uses the timps elsewhere
in the symphony with the luxury of ideal
recording conditions. It reminds me
a lot of the Anthony Collins Sibelius
6th by Decca (reissued and
reviewed on MWI), as if to avoid the
obvious. It is, I think, a weakness
when compared with Barbirolli’s more
direct approach in his EMI and way back
to a Pye LP with the Hallé when
I was in my teens. But it was so damned
Thus, for Elgar, Boult
and recorded music fans this most welcome
reissue is a marvel and a necessity.
That said, it lacks the emotional thrust
of Barbirolli in all available versions.
The BBC Legends reissue of Barbirolli’s
1970 live recording of No.1 [BBCL 4106-2]
is probably the nearest to perfection.
He of course had the benefit of expert
BBC engineers of those analogue times
all committed to truth for about £10.
They delivered a straight ADD transfer
of sheer glory and quite amazing dynamics.
In the Symphony No
2 in E flat I admit to being biased
because I have an archive tape of Sir
Adrian’s last performance of it at a
Prom. This was at a time when he was
supposedly retired. The sheer glory
of that performance is like a ‘mind
altering substance’ as the supreme conductor
said goodbye to his favourite Elgar.
The Lyrita of 1968
might seem a bit restrained to some
listeners but I recommend several listenings
- avoid headphones because this music
needs space - then what Boult was doing
is clear and, in many ways, definitive.
Boult doesn’t conceal
the Brahms and Bruckner influences -
or cribs as RVW would say - any
more than in the 1st Symphony
but he sets out the stall of a great
English composer from "the land
without music" into the heart of
Britain in a cultural sense had to think
again with the ‘Enigma’, ‘Gerontius’
and the Symphony No. 2. The First in
A flat still had a bit of a programme
element in it. It had started as a ‘symphony’
in tribute to General Gordon and astute
Elgarians can see the Sellotape – even
though it’s a great symphony. Michael
Kennedy’s succinct sleeve-notes mention
the Gordon matter but I would have liked
a better explanation for new listeners
who do not know the background; not
all buyers are over 50.
No. 2 was written purely
as a symphony with no programme. Michael
Kennedy’s notes describe how disappointed
Elgar was by the reception at the premiere
in 1911 with the composer conducting.
He mentions that Boult revealed the
work’s "true qualities" in
1920. We have to accept that Sir Edward
wasn’t much of a conductor but Boult
was a supremely great one.
last Boult Elgar 2nd live
is a true occasion. Presumably it is
in the British Library Sound Archive
but I have it anyway. The odd bits of
restraint in this Lyrita and what some
might call being too analytical should
be set in that context.
Boult was never less
than exact but he could be mischievous
and even moody like any great musician.
Thus I shift to the
Colin Davis live recordings of both
symphonies for LSO Live - more expensive
than Lyrita - and praise the issues.
There is much excitement, especially
in No.2. I like the darker side of the
symphony which Sir Colin pulls off to
great effect – but so does Boult in
the live Prom version as well as in
the Lyrita if one listens hard, especially
in the slow movement.
What Boult knew personally
and Davis understands is how reactive
Elgar was to events. The dark moments
surely reflect the composer’s apprehension
of at least the end of an era if not
a hideous war. Elgar was never so self-absorbed
as to be elevated from being a man,
English but also a Catholic; so a bit
unusual back then.
The Lyrita reissue
is technically perfect and must be essential
to Elgar students, especially in the
fine ADD format. It displays the best
of analogue accuracy which is rare.
Although Boult had
freedom in the Symphony No.1 to explore
and analyse the work it doesn’t quite
hit the heart. Boult’s EMI 1976 version
is more emotional without conceding
integrity but, for my money, Barbirolli
is better in his 1962 version and supreme
in the BBC live 1970 version at King’s
Lynn. Colin Davis is impressive but
I give the top recommendation to the
BBC Barbirolli. Boult’s Lyrita remains
essential for its analytical style.
It’s a must have for Elgarians
of all ages.
In Symphony No.2 Boult
scores over EMI, Lyrita and his last
Prom performance of a symphony dear
to his heart. Barbirolli and even Davis
show some vagueness in the links between
light and shadow in this remarkable
work. Boult gets it right in every case.
MWI readers will appreciate
how important the Elgar symphonies were
for English music after a barren period
during imperial/material success. This
remarkable Lyrita reissue sets a standard
to be compared with the other recordings
mentioned above, others not mentioned
and in times to come.
comes an opportunity like this.
see also review
by Rob Barnett