Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

HOLST: Suite, The Planets*;
WALTON: March, Crown Imperial**;
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis***.
BBC SO/Sir Adrian Boult
Recorded: * January, 1945 ** April, 1937 *** April, 1940
BEULAH 2PD12 [69.35]
Beulah This and all remaining Beulah stock is being sold at half-price as the label is being discontinued

It was Sir Adrian who, in Holst's felicitous phrase, "first caused The Planets to shine in public" when he gave the first (private) performance of the work in 1918. As the highly informative notes accompanying this CD remind us this came about when Balfour Gardiner, in a most gracious gesture from one composer to another, hired the Queen's Hall and its orchestra. This was so that Holst could hear a performance of his largest work to date before departing for war service. Boult was chosen to conduct, thereby beginning a life-long association with this work, which he recorded no less than five times.

This present performance is the first of these. It was made at the Corn Exchange in Bedford. By 1945 this was a familiar venue for Boult and his orchestra. On the outbreak of war they were evacuated to Bristol and later, in July 1941, to Bedford where they remained for the duration. Towards the end of the war Walter Legge and HMV made several recordings in Bedford with Boult and the BBCSO.

Michael Kennedy, in his definitive biography of Boult, quotes the conductor's view that the Corn Exchange was "a reasonably good studio, but a rather overpowering concert hall". To judge by the evidence of the Elgar recording mentioned above and this account of The Planets it was quite a reasonable recording venue. There appears to be a good amount of space around the sound and the engineers captured well the sound of Holst's huge orchestra at climaxes (this must have been quite a challenge at the time). Inevitably, there is some distortion in places and, with two sets of timpani to contend with, some bass boom is apparent at times. Overall, however, the sound picture is excellent with plenty of detail registering (for example, the harps and celesta 'tell' in 'Neptune'.)

Beulah's transfer is a good one. There is some surface hiss from the 78s but it never distracts. To a large degree this is due to the quality of the performance. Though wartime call-ups had deprived the BBCSO of many of the players who had graced its ranks in the 1930s this performance shows that it remained a fine orchestra. The playing is very fine throughout. As for Boult, his interpretation simply seems 'right'. Under his baton the music is allowed to breathe and speak for itself (the "big tune" in 'Jupiter' is given with simple eloquence and is all the better for it.)

The recording of the Tallis Fantasia, also Boult's first, was made in the BBCSO's previous wartime home, the Colston Hall in Bristol. Again, the producer was Walter Legge. Here, the surface noise is a little more prominent but is not at such a level to spoil the listener's enjoyment.

What does come through very clearly is the quality of the BBCSO's strings. The tone is full and rich and the players respond eloquently to Boult's unfussy direction. The contrasts between the three groups of players are well observed by performers and engineers alike. It is fascinating to compare this performance with Boult's last recording of the piece which he made in 1975 with the LPO, also for HMV. In the earlier recording accents are more sharply observed and there seems a greater degree of urgency (the 1975 account is the longer by over two minutes). Both, however, are supremely authoritative.

To complete the disc Beulah include the first-ever recording of Walton's splendid march, Crown Imperial, newly written for the coronation of King George VI. Boult conducted the piece at the ceremony itself (and, indeed, at the coronation of our present Queen) and made this studio recording a few weeks earlier.

What a splendid march it is, and how well Boult and his players perform it! Nowadays, Crown Imperial is very familiar fare but when this recording was made it was "hot off the presses" and what we have here is, effectively, its première. It is played with tremendous (but not excessive) swagger. Of course, the recording is not as full and rich as would be the case today. However, in a way that brings compensations. For example, the placing of the microphones and the comparative lack of depth of the recorded sound means that many of the exciting swirls for the violins and high woodwinds, which are such an important part of Walton's orchestration 'tell' a bit more than we often hear nowadays. There is, above all, a feeling of excitement, no doubt occasioned both by the music itself and by the anticipation of the event for which it had been written.

A splendid and important issue. Top-drawer performances captured in sound which is really quite excellent for the period. The well-researched notes are ideal for an 'historic' issue for they place the performances in their historical context. This is an essential purchase for admirers of Sir Adrian and for lovers of English music. The recordings capture him in his prime performing music for which he had an especial affinity. They also give us a vivid illustration of the magnificent orchestra which he created from scratch.

Enthusiastically recommended.

John Quinn

See also Holst :The Planets by Len Mullenger

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