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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture op.50 (1904) [19:48]
Grania and Diarmid – Incidental Music and Funeral March op.42 (1901) [09:30]
Symphony no.1 in A flat op.55 (1908) [48:56]
Introduction and Allegro op.47 (1905) [14:12]
Serenade in E minor op.20 (1892) [12:21]
Symphony no.2 in E flat op.63 (1910) [53:16]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec.29 September 1970, 19 February 1971, All Saints’ Tooting (op.50), 4, 6, 11 February 1974, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road London (op.42), 20, 25 September 1976, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road (op.55/I-III), 10 October 1976, Kingsway Hall, London (op.55/IV), 10 December 1972, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road (op.47), 29, 30 October 1972, Kingsway Hall (op.20), 3 November 1975, 2, 7 January 1976, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road (op.63)
EMI CLASSICS 0946 3 82151 2 7 [78:31 + 80:06]

 


Back in the 1970s “Boult-on-Lyrita” sometimes seemed a more exciting conductor than his contemporary self on EMI. This was because the Lyrita recordings were recorded by Decca engineers who favoured a slightly closer, more brilliant, though still very natural, sound. EMI tended to favour a more distant perspective, such as one might hear sitting in the middle of a concert hall. When I last heard “In the South” on HMV 5 721 192  the sound had considerably more brilliance and presence compared with the LP. I get the impression it has now been tweaked up a little more still, and it sounds comparable to the Lyrita recordings of those years.

It used to be fashionable among 1970s Elgarians to consider the Overtures disc – “In the South” originally came with “Froissart”, “Cockaigne” and the Handel arrangement – one of Boult’s less inspired efforts, with some dodgy ensemble from the LPO. I must say I’ve always loved it. “In the South” soars and surges when it needs to, but there is also infinite flexibility as Boult eases into the more lyrical sections – it is this flexibility that causes a few ensemble problems but does it really matter? – and there is a withdrawn feeling of inner communion in the “Canto Popolare”. The whole performance is infused with a sort of burnished glow, rather like Corot’s paintings of the Italian campagna.

Mind you, my reactions to “In the South” seem to be completely up the spout compared with everybody else’s, for it is an act of faith among all true Elgarians to declare that the Silvestri/Bournemouth recording has never been bettered and probably never will be. Sorry, but I detest it. Very clever of him to make his provincial band play so well, but all I hear is superb drilling and precious little music. So bang go my Elgarian credentials.

The “Grania and Diarmid” music was written for a play by George Moore and W.B. Yeats. It is a curious case of Elgar partially putting aside his own unmistakeable idiom without quite creating a Celtic one. Heard blind I think I would attribute it to a French follower of Franck, though the principal theme of  the funeral march has a few Elgarian fingerprints. It is beautifully played.

Boult came late to the symphonies in his Indian Summer period. When he returned to EMI in 1966 mass duplication of repertoire was not yet fashionable. Barbirolli’s EMI recordings were not so old and there seemed little chance of Boult being allowed to compete with them. He therefore accepted Richard Itter’s invitation to record the works for Lyrita. These recordings, first issued in 1968, will doubtless appear on CD in due course. When he recorded the First Symphony Boult was 87 and could not always summon up the energy to match the best of his previous interpretations. I think this can be noticed here and there in this recording. It is not that vitality is lacking, indeed listeners may be amazed at certain moments in the first two movements how much energy he could still transmit. But he seems to retire gratefully into the more inward moments without quite relating them to the grand overall plan, as he still could when he set down “In the South”. As further evidence that things didn’t quite “click” between him and the orchestra in these sessions, the Adagio is surprisingly extrovert, without the hushed pianissimos he usually drew from the orchestra. Best is the finale, recorded in another venue – this is not noticeable, at least through loudspeakers – and on another date.  After a fairly low-key start it proceeds inexorably to its majestic conclusion as the best Boult performances do.

The Introduction and Allegro was also on HMV 5 721 192. Just comparing the opening I get the idea that the new transfer has a little more richness and depth. It is certainly a performance of massive overall conviction, while finding all the time in the world for wistful poetry along the way. Comparing it with the 1962 performance recorded for World Record Club – and later reissued on Classics for Pleasure – the difference in recording quality is drastic. I should say that I am talking about the CFP LP so maybe a CD transfer could improve things, but in the form in which I have the earlier version there is little body to the sound, which also polarizes around the two speakers. Pianissimos almost drift out of hearing. Boult did sculpt certain phrases with greater nervous energy in 1962, which is a gain in one direction. Yet the sheer weight – and I don’t mean heaviness – of the 1972 version is a gain in another direction. Even if the recordings were equal I wouldn’t necessarily prefer the 1962 traversal.

The first movement of the Serenade has a gracious, flowing quality. Boult doesn’t quite capture the sense of dewy-eyed innocence he had found a few years earlier in his wonderful “Wand of Youth” record. The Larghetto has all the intimate poetry one hoped for but what sets the seal on this performance is the finale. Many conductors seem embarrassed by a movement which ought to be a finale but doesn’t behave like one. Boult tends it lovingly, giving it all the time to unfold.

About a year after this recording of the Second Symphony was made a cousin of my mother’s, long resident in the USA, was paying a visit to London and bought a ticket for a concert more or less at random. What she heard, in fact, was the last performance Boult conducted of this symphony, at a Prom. The only seats still available were in the choir stalls so she saw him face on. Initially, when she saw a very elderly, frail man helped onto the platform and seated at the rostrum, she wondered how on earth he was going to manage, and in fact the initial attack was ragged. But then she was amazed to see the colour pouring into his face, he sat bolt upright and, apparently rejuvenated, conducted the entire performance without any sign of sagging. Then at the end the colour left him and he became a frail old man once more. I heard this performance on the radio and can confirm that it started slackly, then picked up wonderfully.

A minor miracle of this kind could not be expected every time Boult picked up the baton in the recording studio, but it seems to have done in his final recording of this same symphony, a work which had very special associations for him. That said, if you want the opening bars to explode in a frenzy of ecstasy, Boult would probably never have been your man, even thirty years earlier. His sequence of five recordings shows him to have become increasingly aware of the elements in the work which undermine its superficial aura of Edwardian security. The start is not orgiastic – and you will need the volume slightly higher in both symphonies – but nor is it heavy and the inexorably moving bass line proves that Boult is very much in command. As the long movement builds up, each successive climax becomes more colossal than the last, and yet there is a sense that the moments of unease, of introspection, are the real heart of the movement. There is no question here, as in the First Symphony, of these moments not being fully absorbed into the structure.

Nor is there any problem about suitably hushed pianissimos in the Larghetto, which is unfolded in a single span. Here Boult and the orchestra seem at one. The power he unleashes at the climaxes is spine-tingling. And note the word “unleashes” for Boult, in common with the greatest conductors, could give the impression that the sound was released from the orchestra, rather than that the players were being goaded into action.

In the Rondo Boult makes a very detailed examination of the shadows and malign spirits while the pomp and circumstance of the finale gradually winds down to the lonely closing bars which are seen to be implicit in the very opening of the symphony. Strange that Boult, of all people, should have shorn this symphony of its imperialist trappings more completely than most of his successors. A truly great performance. EMI reveal extreme insensitivity, by the way, in presenting it with a cover that quotes the phrase “… a land Which was the mightiest in its old command”, as they do in including it in the “British Composers” series, with the implication that it is of only local interest. It is more deserving of a place in GROC than a good 50% of what found its way there.

When the Lyrita recordings of the Symphonies are reissued it will be time to discuss their relative merits. I have an idea the verdict will be for the Lyrita First and the EMI Second. I seem to remember at least one Prom broadcast of the First which was considerably more incisive than the present version, so the definitive Boult Elgar 1 could yet come from BBC Legends. After what I have just heard I doubt if it is necessary to seek a further Second. Boult recorded both works back in the days of 78s, of course, and there are two others of no.2: a Pye from the 1950s, reputed to be marvellous, and one made with the Scottish National Orchestra in the early 1960s for the short-lived Waverley label and later issued on CFP. I’ve always been fond of this but the orchestral playing really is scrappy at times and it is probably the least important of the five.

I’ve been analyzing this issue from the point of view of a Boult enthusiast. If you’re simply looking for a good “twofer” of the Symphonies and a few other pieces – the timings are most generous – and if you don’t mind analogue sound as long as it’s good 1970s stereo, then don’t let my slight reservations over the First Symphony worry you too much. It’s still a dedicated performance by one of the composer’s finest interpreters and you’ll hear some really great conducting in the other pieces, the Second Symphony above all.

The notes by Andrew Achenbach not only provide an excellent introduction to the music but also document Boult’s special relationship with it. The fact that the booklet is in English only reinforces my suspicion that EMI are not even trying to sell this abroad, which I find appalling. I appeal to them to re-release the package in GROC without delay.

Christopher Howell 


 

 


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