For listeners who came to music in the 1930s and 1940s,
Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were a sort of musical
bread and butter, a standard guide to a whole range of repertoire from
the classics to the moderns, both British and Continental. Those were
the days when the wireless was coming in and bringing music to countless
homes where little or none had previously existed. The sheer unobtrusive
excellence of Boultís interpretations, together with his ubiquity, perhaps
led to him being taken too much for granted, and many of these listeners
came to realise only in later life how much they owed him. After the
BBC had ditched him in 1949 with a crassness which in retrospect heralded
a new era of musical planning, he soldiered on with the LPO and seemed
by the 1960s to be gradually disappearing from view. Instead, his return
to EMI led to an Indian summer in which he was truly venerated by a
new generation of concert-goers and achieved a bumper crop of discs,
mostly for EMI but not forgetting the rarer British material on Lyrita.
At the heart of his repertoire lay the Brahms symphonies,
interpretations that were already famous by the 1930s. He recorded them
with the LPO in the 1950s for Nixa (for contractual reasons the orchestra
was called the Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra but everybody knew what
it was). These recordings had a sporadic life (Nixa didnít last all
that long). They could sometimes be found in Woolworthís in the 1960s
on the Marble Arch label, and have had at least two exhumations on CD.
But when the Nixa catalogue came under the EMI banner, instead of restoring
them lovingly to a place of honour in the catalogue, the EMI planners
have so far kept them under lock and key. In the course of the present
decade these and other important Boult recordings will be coming out
of copyright, so I hope plans are being made for them.
When Boult returned to EMI he was allowed, in the first
place, to record only British music. Magazines such as Gramophone published
many letters in which readers clamoured for his Brahms, his Schubert
"Great" C major and much else, but nothing was done until
sessions for Vaughan Williamsís "Job" finished so far ahead
of schedule that Boult was asked what he would like to record now. He
chose Brahmsís Third Symphony and the Tragic Overture, and the record
had such success that EMI caved in and had him record the rest of Brahms
(Serenades as well as Symphonies), the Schubert "Great" C
major, Mozart 35/41, Beethoven 6, the Brandenburgs, four discs of Wagner,
the Tchaikovsky 3rd Suite, and probably other things I have
Reverting to type, EMI have not exactly thrust this
material under our noses in the CD era; the failure to keep the Schubert
"Great" C major in the catalogue is surely a decision on the
same level as the BBCís dismissal of him in 1949 (but we do now have
the first of his three recordings and a live 1969 performance on BBC
Legends). These transfers are part of a series of discs which can be
sold only in HMV stores; look out for them if youíre passing through
Heathrow Airport. They are notable for brief but adequate liner notes
gleaned from previous issues (so far so good) and a complete absence
of information about dates and locations. I can tell you that "Job"
was recorded in the Kingsway Hall so no. 3 and the Tragic Overture must
have been too (I imagine they all were, but it wouldnít have cost much
to say so). This disc came out early in 1971 and no. 2 followed with
the Rhapsody later the same year. Nos. 1 and 4 came out in 1973, the
latter with an Academic Festival Overture not included here.
So the point is, are these interpretations as great
as we used to think or did our veneration for Boult lead us to hear
qualities which were not there? For instance, I remember a broadcast
from the Proms of no. 1, later than the recording, which had a fierce
drive and a whiplash, Toscanini-like articulation, together with more
reflective qualities. I can still hear the first movement to this day.
Or can I? Was it really like that? Because the recording isnít.
The opening immediately reveals a rather muddy, bass-heavy
and often timpani-dominated sound, but some of the flabbiness is to
be found in the orchestral attack. All sorts of small details suggest
a rather ill-attentive orchestra, with wind entries behind the beat
and many small ensemble slips. Boult does not often delay a climax chord
agogically but when he does (as just before the coda to the first movement),
some players follow him while others just arenít looking and plough
on, to very ragged effect. When the Allegro is reached it is a rather
listless affair, Boult apparently unable or unwilling to push the players
beyond a decent run-through. The exposition is repeated without any
noticeable improvement. However, he seems to regain his grip during
the development, which builds up strongly, and the recapitulation is
launched in fine style. He gets the players to dig into the phrasing
more, and many details which passed by blandly first and second time
round now gain meaning. Itís just a pity he took so long to warm up.
The Andante sostenuto is very successful, songful and
leaving no doubt that this is an Andante not an Adagio. The purposeful
playing of the triplets in the cellos and basses in bars 5-6 and the
pointing of the hairpins in the violas in bars 18-21 demonstrate that
the conductor is more firmly in control of the proceedings. The orchestral
response remains somewhat slack but we can appreciate an interpretation
which does not impose tragedy or neurosis upon Brahms, yet has a flowing
grace which is affecting in its way.
The third movement is on the slow side and Boult makes
no attempt to whip up tension in the passages with syncopated accompaniment,
maintaining a light, relaxed approach throughout. It is probable that
the muddiness of the recording detracts from the effect he intended.
The trio is warmly carolling and builds up well Ė a greater climax is
reached in the repeat than first time round. Boult allows the tempo
to move forward a little but handles the transition back to the reprise
with much quiet mastery.
Best of all is perhaps the finale. It does not shoot
you out of your seat and you might wonder as the "Allegro non troppo
ma con brio" starts whether it will not be too warm and comfortable
to stay the course but no, the tempo is perfectly judged to accommodate
both the energetic passages and the more lyrical ones so that the movement
seemingly plays itself, building up with grand inevitability. Two points
to note; the "calando" at bar 297 begins at bar 297 and not
about eight bars before as is the usual practice; you will therefore
notice this passage is much faster than you usually hear it until the
very end. And in the coda, after the return of the chorale theme, grandly
delivered, Brahmsís triplets sound very slow without the increase in
tempo often wished upon them. Yet that is what Brahms wrote and (presumably)
In his very last years Boult was continually reassessing
the tempi and other matters of interpretation of music he had known
all his life. He also retained very clear memories of the conductors
he had heard in his youth, which included several who had known Brahms
himself. This performance seems to speak from another age and it is
easy to imagine that its unforced warmth and natural proportions may
be close to those of the Steinbach and the Meiningen Orchestra, Brahmsís
favourite interpreters. But this is not how Boult conducted Brahms for
most of his career, and the Tragic Overture which follows reminds us
of this. Here is the vivid attack, here are the soaring strings and
the control of tension (the development of this work can seem repetitive
and interminable but here you know exactly where Brahms is going) which
make up a typical Boult performance as I think of one. So I feel that
for a true Boult Brahms 1 we should look back to the Nixa recording
or hope for revelations from the BBC archives.
Thereís much less to say about the second, except that
itís simply glorious! My introduction to this symphony was in fact Boultís
Nixa recording, which we had at school, and it has remained as an ideal
ever since. An ideal seen through rose-tinted spectacles? Fearing this,
I have for many years fought shy of hearing the later recording. But
it would seem not. One day I hope to compare the two versions but I
can only report that this sounds exactly like the performance I remember,
in far better sound. (One major difference is that Sir Adrian took the
first movement repeat in the 1970s while in the 1950s he did not). The
recording is excellent in this case, warm and well-balanced, making
the muzziness of no. 1 seem all the stranger.
As the first movement begins you might think this is
going to be a very fast performance but no, Boult takes an ideally flowing
tempo and sets it from the start whereas so many conductors open slowly
and reach their real tempo only gradually. The movement unfolds in a
single sweep (and itís a very long sweep, 19í 13", with the repeat)
and, while the prevailing mood is pastoral and relaxed, the moments
of grandeur, passion and cragginess are all encompassed within the flow.
The orchestra seems totally engaged and there is the spontaneous feeling
of a live performance.
The "Adagio non troppo" is warmly phrased
at a tempo which keeps the music mobile. Boult gives the opening a sense
of unease both by the fastish tempo itself and by his attention to the
moving bassoon line. At 8í 24" this is about a minute shorter than
all the other versions I have. Recently a Mengelberg reissue (Teldec
0927 42662 2) showed that this opening can have more sheer beauty at
a very slow tempo, but conductors far less libertarian the Mengelberg
have found that with such a slow tempo you have to move on in the dramatic
episodes much more than Boult. In fact, the minute extra does not take
into account the range of speeds.
The "Allegretto grazioso" is light and delicate
at a fairly moderate tempo (Brahms added "quasi andantino"
to his direction), the fast episodes scampering without hurrying. The
finale crowns the symphony with more glorious, seamless conducting.
I remember of old how the first forte attack galvanised the orchestra
and then had the music swinging along with a rhythmic life of its own,
and so it is here.
I hope I am not deaf to other conductorsí insights
into Brahms 2 (my reaction to Mengelberg suggests I am not), but having
learnt it this way it has always seemed to me that bringing out one
particular aspect of the music means losing sight of others. Brahmsís
particular dosing of his elements in this symphony requires a very special
sense of proportion and the most satisfying performances tend to be
the ones that sound similar to this one.
The Alto Rhapsody was the coupling on the original
LP and the result was one of the finest Brahms records ever made. It
provided a classic English version of the piece, finding a similar place
in listenersí hearts to that of the Ferrier recording which was by then
well over twenty years old. Indeed, it was not only a substitution of
the Ferrier but even Ė though people didnít like to say so at the time
Ė a corrective to it. For one thing, Baker is the more "modern"
singer in her application of a proper bel canto legato to the German
repertoire just as to the Italian, while it cannot be denied that Ferrier
tends to spell the music out syllable by syllable. And then there is
the question of tempi. The first time round I did wonder if there the
performance didnít flow a little too easily and at the outset the old
Ferrier recording (conducted by Clemens Krauss) did seem to prove the
point. Krauss really digs in, revealing a Brahms who looked ahead to
Mahler rather than back to Mendelssohn. But as the performance wore
on (yes, I said wore on) it became more and more obvious that
Brahms just isnít Mahler and from the second section onwards he didnít
pack the music with enough incident for there to be any sense in dragging
it out like this. The way every "t" is crossed and every "i"
is dotted becomes in the end self-defeating and irritating.
More recently another Ferrier performance emerged,
given live in Denmark under Fritz Busch in 1949 (Danacord DACOCD 301).
The recording itself is too crumbly to interest the general listener
but with patience it can be heard that this is a performance with a
greater forward flow and a better memorial to a much loved singer. All
the same, even this one lasts two minutes longer than the Baker/Boult
and, having heard what the Rhapsody is not I returned to the
later disc ready to appreciate the urgency, the forward surge and, at
the end, the flowing gentleness of a performance which reveals the piece
as a perfect work of art, its length exactly right for its material.
To this already imperishable coupling, EMI have added
the two songs with viola. Here, away from Boultís baleful glare and
with Previn and Aronowitz in mellow mood, Baker is actually slower than
the old Ferrier recording, slightly so in the first piece and very much
so in the second. I thoroughly enjoyed the sheer warmth of it all but
this time, referring back to Ferrier, I was not so sure the comparisons
were all in Bakerís favour. However, the combination of voice, viola
and piano created quite insuperable problems for the engineers back
in the late 1940s and the recording quality itself is as good a reason
as any for preferring Baker. This is now quite a disc.
No. 3 was the famous occasion when Boult conducted
this and the Tragic Overture in the time left over from the "Job"
sessions and changed his subsequent career. I wonder how much difference
it made that the performance was an impromptu one rather than one mentally
prepared in advance by the conductor, and I wonder how long they actually
had to record it. These thoughts are prompted by the fact that we are
back in the world of rather ragged orchestral playing. The dovetailing
of themes between strings and wind at the beginning of the slow movement
finds the two departments inclined to arrive late and the first movement
in particular contains any number of moments where a vigorous attack
is undermined by a lack of unanimity. I donít know how this will sound
after repeated listening, I can only say I noted it without being particularly
disturbed by it since I found it a very different case from the general
disattentiveness which plagued the orchestral response in no. 1. Rather,
it springs from a whole-hearted concentration on the music by
all concerned and the plus side is the sensation of a live exploration
of the music. A number of points of phrasing and dynamics go quite differently
when the first movement exposition is repeated, for instance.
The opening of the symphony has a powerful attack and
also a mobility which escapes interpreters who concentrate on the massiveness
of the music, yet neither is it too hard-driven for the subsequent winding
down to the graciously playful second subject to cause the music to
lose direction within a couple of minutes of the start. As I suggested,
the repeat is used to add a dimension, the development surges splendidly
and the coda really takes off. I would add, though, that it is the gentler
passages which remain particularly in the mind for the affection with
which they are phrased. Somehow Boultís famously immobile appearance
on the rostrum led listeners all-too-used to more abundantly choreographic
conductorial performances to wonder if he was really doing all that
much. Well, there are countless phrases here which could never have
just "happened" without a strong input from the rostrum.
The Andante could never be taken for an Adagio, and
the very clear enunciation of the dotted rhythms at the opening (which
are often made almost to disappear) gives it an almost serenade-like
quality. Moreover, the general tendency is for the tempo to move forward
rather than backwards. Again, there is much detailed phrasing from the
conductor which avoids any risk of superficiality. This is a reading
which is a valuable corrective to the many sluggish affairs we have
The Poco allegretto, on the other hand, is warmly expressive
at a quite slow tempo (but, if you interpret the Italian directions
literally, an Andante should not be much slower than a Poco allegretto).
Thanks to a certain flowing graciousness it never becomes turgid, however.
The finale is launched fairly steadily at a pace which
allows for much biting attack and for a second subject which neither
lacks tension nor (the other risk here) gets hustled along. But following
this second subject comes the moment which raised eyebrows ever since
the record came out; a sudden increase of tempo which leads to much
impassioned, if slipshod, playing until it subsides to the original
tempo, only to do the same thing in the recapitulation. This certainly
sets the seal on the slightly improvised, one-off feeling about this
performance and I should dearly like to know if it was a feature of
Boultís interpretation throughout his career, or whether he did it just
In short, this is a fine and rewarding performance
(in a full-blooded if not very refined recording) but not one which
suggests that it may be taken as the definitive Boult statement on this
work, as no. 2 can. I should like to hear the old Nixa recording, and
perhaps BBC Legends might find something?
In 1971 I had just arrived in Edinburgh to study and
the opening concert of the Scottish National Orchestra season was conducted
by Boult, culminating in a performance of Brahmsís Fourth Symphony of
such glowing warmth that I have never forgotten it. Not surprisingly,
this was the performance of the cycle that I bought on LP as soon as
it came out, only to be disappointed by a much grainier, dourer rendering
than I had heard from the SNO. Imposing as the performance was in its
way I never quite warmed to it and, returning after many years I was
surprised to find that it sounds quite different now.
The very opening has a slightly unsettled feeling,
as though Boult is driving the music along a little faster than the
players expected, but his interpretation soon establishes itself with
a powerful onward surge. There are a few orchestral imprecisions along
the way but there are far more occasions when a real ensemble
is created because the players are not being flogged to heel; rather,
the conductor has been able to make them feel the music all together
with him. Signally, most of the scherzo is quite brilliant, alternating
an Elgarian swagger with moments of even more Elgarian intimacy.
Boultís handling of the first movement is quite flexible
at times, and his ability to depart from a basic tempo almost imperceptibly,
picking it up at key structural points, is almost a lost art nowadays.
By this means he is able to express all the movements many moods Ė a
what a wide-ranging movement this is - , from dramatic and heroic to
resigned and autumnal, in a single line. Masterly.
Consistently with the rest of the cycle the Andante
moderato is kept on the move with a Schubertian songfulness. There is
no danger here of the hammering sections grinding to a halt under their
own weight. This is at the opposite pole from the very slow, intense
interpretation I recently wrote about from Mengelberg (TELDEC 0927 42662
2, a coupling of Symphonies 2 and 4) and it is extraordinary that two
conductors whose careers overlapped could have seen Brahms so differently,
the more so when both of them grew up in a musical world where conductors
and instrumentalists who had known Brahms were not uncommon. But, as
I pointed out in that review, Brahms interpretation was ambiguous from
the start and the two conductors who recorded some of his symphonies
and who might have had it out of the horseís mouth (Max Fiedler, nos.
2 and 4, and Felix Weingartner, a complete cycle) actually demonstrated
that romantic and classical interpretations co-existed from the beginning.
However, time has affected our reactions a little. In their own day
the flexibility of Boult was perhaps seen as the minimum necessary (some
even saw it as rigidity) while that of Mengelberg was maybe looked on
as the maximum permissible. In the intervening years, musicologically
inclined conductors have shown us what inflexibility really means, making
Boult sound much more romantic than he once seemed. Whereas anything
even remotely approaching a Mengelberg performance would now be treated
with contempt. But the tide may turn again, who knows?
I have already spoken of the Scherzo, and the Finale
in general crowns a splendid performance. Boult, as may be expected,
does not let things sag in the group of variations beginning from the
flute solo and there is much thrilling and powerful work later on. The
only thing is, he seems to tire a few bars before the end, with some
weighty point-making which holds back the onward surge and prevents
the final page or two from capping the whole symphony. All the same,
this is a richly rewarding performance, still one of the finest in the
I must say I was puzzled as to why I found this so
much more impressive than nearly thirty years ago, and can only assume
that the performances I have heard in the meantime have changed my reactions
to the music itself. I did wonder if the recording had been brightened
up (itís full-blooded and makes quite an impact) but reference to the
LP showed that it used to be better still. There is a realism and presence
to the old vinyl disc by the side of which the CD is just ever so slightly
muffled. Not muzzy like no. 1 (was the LP of that better? A more brilliant
recording might show the performance in a better light) but even so,
modern technology is supposed to improve older recordings.
So what does this add up to? One of the lessons of
the flood of live "historical" releases we have had over the
last decade or so is that even meticulously "prepared" conductors
such as Boult or Toscanini in fact either varied their interpretations
more than we realised or quite simply realised them better on some occasions
than others. Rather than any single performance, the statements they
have left us about the works they felt most strongly about can be considered
the sum of all the performances we have from them. Boultís Brahms was
historically important; the present cycle should always be available
(hopefully with a better transfer of no. 1), and so should the old Nixa
one. Somebody at BBC Legends should be doing some careful listening
(there must be several performances of each symphony in the archives)
with a view to bringing out a third, live cycle.
If you want to study Brahms interpretation these discs
obviously represent a real bargain. If you are approaching Brahms for
the first time and just want good, inexpensive versions of the symphonies,
then there is obviously a lot to be said for the first Wand cycle, now
available on just two CDs at budget price. I feel that all music-lovers
should have the disc with the second symphony and the rhapsody, and
I can't imagine anyone regretting buying the disc of 3 and 4. No. 1
needs to be treated with a little caution.