BRAHMS: Four Symphonies & Tragic Overture, Alto Rhapsody,
Variations on a Theme by Haydn
London Symphony Orchestra
& London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult
DISKY705412 3 discs
[70:52, 60:28 & 73:16] Price around £15 from Crotchet (incl. postage
Sir Adrian Boult made these recordings during his Indian Summer in the recording
studio - a summer that produced a sequence of discs every bit as compelling
as those made by Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski in their
blossoming later years. Boult's Brahms is not revelatory as Toscanini's could
often be or Furtwängler's always was but they are interesting because
they remain, to this day, the most Germanic of any British conductor. Barbirolli
set a Mediterranean glow on everything he conducted (including Brahms) but
Boult's performances are laden with a Teutonic depth of tone and moulding
which places these performances clearly within the central European tradition.
It is not surprising that Boult's perception of Brahms' major works should
be like this. As a child, he had heard Hans Richter and Artur Nikisch perform
the symphonies and it seems that Boult's own interpretations owe much to
their approach to this music. Fritz Steinbach, who conducted the Fourth Symphony
with the LSO in 1905, left an impression on the young Boult as to how this
music should be played. By the time Boult made these recordings, he was probably,
along with Carlo Maria Giulini, the pre-eminent exponent of Brahms' symphonies.
Yet Boult remains under-appreciated by many Europeans, much the same as Solomon
remained unappreciated by the German's until illness forced his withdrawal
from the concert platform and recording studio. I hope the reissue of this
set of symphonies and overtures (at super-bargain price) will allow a wider
audience to sample Boult's effortless way with Brahms. They are a recommendable
set, without being truly great performances.
He had recorded an earlier cycle in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Compared
with the current set, the earlier cycle suffers from some very peculiar levels
of balance, and playing that is often scrappy, as well as from poor editing.
The London Philharmonic of the seventies certainly play better for Boult
than they did for him on the earlier set, although I can't help wondering
just how fine these recordings might have been if Boult had had the Berlin
or Vienna Philharmonics available. These recordings promise much, but seldom
deliver what ought to have been a very great set indeed.
The First Symphony is substantially finer than the 1961 version. The opening
is heavy, but with the correct accentuation on the repeated timpani which
begins the movement. Balances are quite evenly developed, and in the final
movement the great horn tune is given a noble reading. Both the Second
and Third symphonies suffer from being played with considerable weight of
tone, often so dense as to be at odds with Brahms' orchestration. This is
evident most clearly in the Second, where the recording engineers have shrouded
the bloom of the strings beneath a very bass-heavy level of play back. In
some ways, I prefer my Brahms to have this added bass, but whilst it works
wonderfully for the outer symphonies, the more introspective middle works
can often sound plodding. The close of the Second's final movement, with
its great brass chorale, is thrillingly sonorous, but Boult's tempi are too
slow to make the moment genuinely exciting. In this respect, Beecham's
performance remains the best by a British conductor. The London Symphony
Orchestra do get a warmer balance from the sound engineers (this being the
earliest recorded in this cycle), and the performance has a subdued warmth
to it. It is very clear, however, that this is an 'old man's' view of this
most summery of Brahms' symphonies, with the complex shifts in mood and
temperament finely judged. It lacks the last ounce of spontaneity which Toscanini
achieved in his Philharmonia recording, but is a fine reading of a work that
has proved difficult for many conductors.
The Fourth has an imposing architectural strength to it. The opening melody
is developed like a great medieval arch upon which this movement is balanced.
From 10:45 onwards (apart from a slip by the brass at 11:00) the ending is
very dramatic as it drives inexorably to the first movement's cataclysmic
close. Again, the recorded sound is very bass heavy (noticeably more so at
the beginning of the second movement with woodwind somewhat densely captured).
The great passacaglia, is broad, but focused. The strings are here rather
fine, albeit without the sonority one expects in this symphony. From 5:38,
Boult takes the development which leads to the final pages at a very slow
tempo (from 6:45 onwards the effect is almost like staccato). Whilst some
(Carlos Kleiber and Furtwängler, for example) give this development
a sense of homogeneity and urgency, Boult holds back. The effect is not
convincing, particularly from 9:08 onwards when, rather than speeding up,
Boult again pulls back. The last bars have weight but little else.
These discs give you pretty straight performances. At the price, they are
a fine bargain but I would recommend investing that little bit more for
Furtwängler's set on EMI 7243 5 65513 2 9, or, if money is no object,
Sergiu Celibidache's EMI set (on four discs - two double albums) on EMI 7243
5 56843 2 5 and EMI 7243 5 56846 2 2. These are versions born from greatness.