> Great Conductors of the 20th Century 16: Sir Adrian Boult [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

MusicWeb International One of the most grown-up review sites around 2024
60,000 reviews
... and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here Acte Prealable Polish CDs

Presto Music CD retailer
Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             


Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS


Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Overture Ė "Rob Roy", op. 54 (1)
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Symphony in d (2)
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Suite no. 3 in G, op. 55: Theme and Variations (3)
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)

Portsmouth Point (4)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Coriolan Overture, op. 62 (5)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Symphony no. 4 in d, op. 120 (6)
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)

Italian Serenade (7)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Symphony no. 4 in c, D.417 Ė "Tragic" (8)
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

The Tempest: Prelude (9)
London Orchestra Society (2), London Philharmonic Orchestra (1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9), New Philharmonia Orchestra (5), Philharmonia Orchestra (7)/Sir Adrian Boult
Locations (all in London):
Abbey Road Studios (3, 4), Kingsway Hall (5), Walthamstow Town Hall (1, 6, 7, 9), Watford Town Hall (2), Wembley Town Hall (8)
15th-31st August 1956 (1, 6), 1st-12th September 1956 (9), 5th January 1957 (7), 23rd-27th February 1959 (8), 1st June 1959 (2), 27th July 1967 (4), 17th September 1970, 12th, 14th, 17th June 1974 (3)
in association with IMG Artists
EMI CLASSICS CZ5 5 75459 2 [2CDs: 73í45"+75í35"]

The omission of Sir Adrian Boult from the first batch of "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" raised my eyebrows a little, but perhaps extra time was needed to bring all this material together, for it really is a most handsome tribute, infinitely more so than one could ever have dared hope for. It could have been so easy; an "Enigma", a "Planets", a "Tallis Fantasia", a Brahms Overture, a bit of Wagner and maybe the "Dambusters March" to round it off, all of two minutesí work at the planning stage and after all, who could deny Sir Adrian greatness on the strength of it all? Instead, there are recordings here that the conductorís admirers must have despaired of ever hearing. For this we must be grateful to John Pattrick (Director, Audio/Visual Division) and Stephen Wright (Managing Director) of IMG Artists who selected these recordings and also to Malcolm Walker who some years ago compiled a Boult discography, and here provides the informative booklet notes. And yet, while there is material galore for the connoisseur, this is also a set which can safely be given to a collector who has not yet investigated the art of Boult, for it should leave him in no doubt as to why Sir Adrian is to be considered among the great conductors. Indeed, it is an album which is most urgently recommended to those have been discouraged by the image left by Boult in his later years, that of a benign old English gentleman, a survivor from a past age, heard at his best when guiding the meandering course of some gentle rhapsody of the English "cow-pat school", or when turning in a "true blue" performance of a patriotic march. And incidentally, Groucho Marx himself could not have bettered the Italian radio announcer who unwittingly dubbed him "Seer Bald". (I canít resist adding that the same hapless linguist, on another occasion, announced, with glorious Freudian aptness, a composer called "Daily Ooze"; I wonít attempt to reproduce phonetically what he made of "On hearing the first cuckoo in spring").

However, Boultís "benign old gentleman" image, like Bruno Walterís "saintly" image, was a popular misconception which the interested party was apparently happy to foster. Orchestral players were very loyal to him and stories to the effect that he could be nervous, tetchy and pretty short in the fuse, while completely true, circulated remarkably little. As more of his recordings from the 78 and early LP era become available to supplement those of his "Indian summer" back in the EMI stables, a more vital image of him is emerging, and it is becoming evident that, while these late recordings were more than good enough to delight his many fans Ė and they do include many superb things Ė we should be wary of selecting a late Boult recording as definitive if an earlier one of the same work exists.

Not that many of the pieces in this selection exist in later versions. "Rob Roy" comes from a fairly comprehensive two-LP selection of Berliozís Overtures made for Nixa in 1956 and available at budget price from Pye in the late í60s. British conductors have always been in the forefront where appreciation of Berlioz is concerned, but common wisdom is that the royal lineage passed from Harty to Beecham and thence to Sir Colin Davis. Without detracting a jot from the achievement of these three (remember, too, that it was Scottish Opera and Sir Alexander Gibson who first put "The Trojans" back on the map), this is not entirely fair to Boult, who had already recorded three of the overtures in the 1930s and who establishes his Berlioz credentials in no uncertain manner. The opening bars could be more precise and some wow (obviously on the original master, since the LP pressing was exactly the same) does not help, but as the music gains momentum Boult is soon living dangerously with whiplash attack and some pizzicatos within a millimetre of snapping the strings. He also finds due tenderness and elegance where required (this is the piece which begins with "Scots wha hae" and in which the "Harold in Italy" theme makes an early appearance), but the important thing is that he creates that sense of hedonistic incandescence without which Berlioz just doesnít get off the ground. Some scrappy entries along the way have never worried me.

Compared with the Pye LP, the transfer engineers have produced results that are less shrill and constricted than before. What they cannot do is alter certain oddities of balance. The harp seems to have been close-miked while certain wind instruments were left to fend for themselves. If you want to know how much (and above all how little) of the "Harold in Italy" theme you hear if you are sitting in the orchestra playing the harp, then this disc reveals all. Since Boult was famed for his orchestral balance we can take it for granted that he was not to blame. All the same, I hope we get a complete reissue of these Berlioz recordings before long.

Iíd better confess that this recording of the Franck has been with me for about as long as Iíve been listening to music. It originally came out in a Readerís Digest box which we had at school and we all know that the recording by which we came to know a work can sometimes seem more definitive than it deserves. But this box also provided my introduction to the "Eroica" (Grünner-Hegge), "The Rite of Spring" (Leibowitz), the "Pathétique" (Gibson) and it was only later that I discovered that these pieces were not as boring as they seemed, though I must confess that performances of the "Rhenish" Symphony still find me "missing" certain of Leibowitzís stranger agogic touches. So I feel that, when a performance remains with us as an ideal in this way, it must be a good one. I also have the idea that slower, more sentimental performances of this work may be a phenomenon of the last twenty years or so, when this Symphony had ceased to be a standard repertoire piece and conductors no longer quite knew what to do with it, for other performances I heard in my late schooldays (I remember John Carewe and Hugo Rignold in particular) were not so different from Boult. It was only with the passing of the years that this Boult performance came to represent for me an ideal which no other conductor seemed willing to match.

But what about Boultís own early encounters with this symphony? In his youth he heard it conducted by Franckís pupil Gabriel Pierné, and this memory formed the basis of his own interpretation. Furthermore, while I have never heard the Toscanini version, I understand that he arrived by sheer intuition at very similar results, and I can certainly testify that another conductor who gave an interpretation strikingly similar to Boultís was Toscaniniís one-time protégé Mario Rossi. Another conductor who went in for an up-front, forward-moving solution, Paul Paray, certainly had plenty of opportunities to hear Piernéís interpretation in his younger days. In short, Boult, far from being out on a limb, may actually represent some kind of grand tradition which has been lost sight of.

These Readersí Digest albums were issued to special order, purchasers being assured that they were getting a once-in-a-lifetime offer that would never be sold to the general public. Fortunately this was not true and in 1976 RCA, who had actually made the recordings, issued some of them, including the Franck. I didnít hear this but caught up with the performance a few years ago on a Chesky CD which was also notable for Earl Wildís performance of the Symphonic Variations (Chesky CD 87). It was all that I had remembered it, and it has been great to hear it again now, for Boult really does seem to have all the answers. In those moments where virtually every performance gets bogged down as the organist-composer fidgets with his stops and recalls earlier themes, Boult surges inexorably onwards. Just one example. Where, in the finale, Franck makes a thumping climax out of his second movement theme, Boult does not slacken his tempo at first, he holds it steady, broadens out briefly but overwhelmingly at the very end of the passage and then sails proudly on before the momentum has been lost. And, just to show that his insights are not confined to tempo, I would point to the very passionate colouring of the violasí entry at 1í 37" in the second movement as unparalleled in my experience. Franckís particular brand of Catholic fervour might have been antithetic to Boultís Anglican background (though no more so than that of "Gerontius") but this does not prevent him from realising it wholeheartedly.

The strangely-named London Orchestra Society was renamed the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra on the RCA LP issue (this was a convenient all-purpose name for out-of-contract orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic) and rumour got around that it was the Philharmonia. Malcolm Walker explains that it was a free-lance pick-up band, many of whose members were indeed from the Philharmonia. As so often on this set, Boult may be unruffled by the odd spot of ragged ensemble but obtains the total collaboration of his players in realising his vision of the music. The recording is still vivid, include a strange "noise-off" on the third note which has always been there.

Boultís Readersí Digest recordings also included wonderfully buoyant readings of suites from Tchaikovskyís "Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake", both of which have been made available by Chesky (the former on Chesky CD53, with other Boult performances including a thrilling version of Lisztís "Les Préludes", the latter on Chesky CD94, with the 5th Symphony under Horenstein). His Nixa recordings of this composer included Symphonies 5 and 6, while he conducted the 3rd for Decca. A Tchaikovsky work for which he evidently had a particular affection was the 3rd Suite, which he recorded for Decca with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in the mid-fifties and again in 1974, from which recording we are given the Theme and Variations. Walker comments that this "proved to be one of the most memorable of all the recordings Sir Adrian made in his 80s". Presumably the Decca version would not have been available for this compilation, but in any case this is an instance where the late performance (as with his remake of Brahms 2) is so vital as to silence any doubts that the earlier one might be more so still. Here is affection, elegance, poetry and fantasy wedded to the deepest feeling.

It is not illogically followed by "Portsmouth Point", for Boultís exuberant performance reminds us how much Waltonís inspiration owed to "Petrushka". This, Sir Adrianís third (and last) recording of the piece, came out on a World Record Club issue called "Boult Bravo" which included such unlikely fare as the Intermezzo to Wolf-Ferrariís "I gioielli della Madonna", the Fire Dance from Fallaís "El Amor Brujo", Stravinskyís "Circus Polka" and Gershwinís "Cuban Overture". Other World Record Club issues, of which only a few isolated pieces have seen the light of day in the CD era, included a disc of marches (Sousa, Alford, etc), one of classical favourites such as the overtures to "The Magic Flute" and "Poet and Peasant", Ponchielliís "Dance of the Hours" and the "Radetzky March", various Russian and Slavonic favourites, some concertos with soloists including Shura Cherkassky (as so often, not at his best in studio conditions), Mendelssohnís "Italian" Symphony and Ė well-known in its Classics for Pleasure incarnation Ė an Elgar coupling of "Enigma" and the Introduction and Allegro.

Sir Adrianís success as an interpreter of British music would not have been possible had he not also been a great interpreter of the basic classics. Just as the first disc illustrates his excellence in much French and Russian music (to the former we can now add his "Daphnis et Chloë" on BBC Legends, BBCL 4039-2), so the second concentrates on the German/Austrian classics. "Coriolan" was the coupling for the Beethoven Violin Concerto which he recorded with Josef Suk; many commentators felt that the overture had a degree of concentration not attained in the concerto itself, though in the EMG Monthly Letter a critic with long memories felt it "not quite so taut as on his famous old 78 recording, but excellent nonetheless". I canít go back that far but I do have a recording he made in the late fifties, last sighted on an LP from the Austrian company Amadeo as a coupling to his "Eroica", and I rather feel the same way. The earlier timing of 6í 50" compared with the 7í 42" of the NPO version does not in itself prove anything, but the NPO was very much still Klempererís orchestra whereas in the earlier version (with the LPO) there is the feeling of a shared knowledge of how everyone expects the music to go. It is classic Beethoven conducting in the fiery, taut manner of Weingartner or the younger Bruno Walter. Incidentally, Malcolm Walker tells us that Boult recorded Beethovenís Symphonies 1, 3, 5, 6 and 8, but this series (originally issued on Top Rank, I believe) also included a 7th which is perhaps the pick of the bunch, one of the finest performances I know. Whoever has the rights should let us have a coupling of nos. 5 (also very fine) and 7.

The Schumann Symphonies were another Nixa set. I once heard a broadcast of the "Rhenish", then famous for its faster-than-Toscanini tempi, but this is my first encounter with no. 4. Here I have to say that the classic Furtwängler version has embedded itself deeply in my consciousness though, as the recent Thielemann recording showed, I am not going to thank any conductor who merely reproduces the outward gestures of that extraordinary performance. How would Boultís predictably more "straight" version grab me?

Well, let us recall that Leipzig and Arthur Nikisch were potent factors in the musical development of both conductors. While Furtwänglerís improvisatory freedom is at the opposite extreme to Boultís sense of architectural balance, you can also hear that both interpretations derive from a shared experience, for the actual character that emerges is uncannily similar. When evoking the impetuous Florestan, there is little to choose between them, though it must be said that Furtwänglerís still invests certain phrases of the imploring Eusebius (in the Romanze, principally) with a very special meaning. Furtwänglerís handling of the "Wagnerian" transition to the finale has long been a touchstone, but Boult is pretty terrific, too. As with these Nixas, recording and orchestral playing have rough passages, but this is a Schumann cycle that we should be allowed to hear in its entirety.

The Wolf was one of a few unprogrammed items set down when some concerto sessions with the violinist Michael Rabin finished ahead of schedule. For Walker, this is "one of Boultís most accomplished recordings". You may be getting the idea that I am ready to rubber-stamp any Boult performance as "one of the finest ever", but here I differ. I appreciate the vitality and the cheekiness of the performance but feel that a degree of Mediterranean languor is missing Ė it is a bit relentless. A broadcast Celibidache performance (Rome 1968 Ė well before this conductor began to seek out the mystic element in the most unlikely places) adds less than a minute to Boultís timing, yet seems to find the space for affection and warmth as well as sparkle.

It is strange that the fame justly accorded to Boultís interpretation of Schubertís "Great" C major Symphony did not encourage more interest in his performances of this composerís other music. His early 78s of the "Unfinished" remained without sequel until BBC Legends recently came out with a fine version (with the Ravel on BBCL 4039-2). This recording of no. 4 was made for the Concert Hall Record Club and is very rare indeed for, while World Record Club issues were accessible to non-members, Concert Hall ones were not. It proves everything we could have hoped for; a grave but not static introduction leads to a superbly vigorous Allegro vivace, the Andante moves forward at a gentle walking pace (this movement can easily seem too long), the phrasing of the Menuetto is exactly judged between drive and lilt, while the finale charts Schubertís progress from the sombre opening to the concluding burst of sunlight. The recording is a bit bass-light (tunes on the cellos donít sing out as they should) but otherwise acceptable.

BBC Legends have also put us in their debt by finding a Sibelius 7th Symphony conducted (very finely) by Boult (BBCL 4039-2 once again; the fourth item on this valuable issue is Bizetís Suite "Jeux díenfants"). Its excellence is hardly surprising in view of the qualities of his set of Sibelius tone poems made for Nixa and available in America on the Omega label. The obvious comparison for the "Tempest" Prelude is with Beechamís 1947 version. Beecham insists on a very clear enunciation of the string triplets throughout and obtains a mesmeric effect but, just possibly, a slightly didactic one. Boultís tempo is virtually identical (Beecham: 6í 28", Boult: 6í 13"). With him, the triplets are present, but more absorbed into the general mass of sound. The sense of a natural cataclysm slowly evolving before our helpless eyes is if anything greater still; I found this absolutely riveting. Incidentally, a more recent version under Sir Neville Marriner (on Hänssler CD 98.353 with the Violin Concerto played by Sitkovetsky) gets through the piece in 3í 33". The triplets obviously become mere tremolos, so it is rather a case of "more haste, less speed". It is thrilling and effective in its way, but its way is a cinematographic way and limits Sibeliusís vision.

In choosing the material John Pattrick and Stephen Wright have thrown down the gauntlet to EMI and others; this is indeed a wonderful and revelatory tribute to a conductor whose work we believed we knew well already. And not the least of its revelations is of just how much prime Boult material still remains in the vaults.

Christopher Howell

Return to Index

Error processing SSI file