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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony no. 9 in C major, D.944 The Great C major [53:57]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Academic Festival Overture, op. 80 [09:49], Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 [11:46]*
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo)*, John Alldis Choir*
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
Recorded 4th, 13th and 14th March 1972 (Overture), 28th-30th May 1972 (Symphony), 15th December 1970 (Rhapsody) in Kingsway Hall, London (Overture and Symphony), No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Rhapsody)
EMI CLASSICS 7243 562791 2 4 [76:02]


 

The name of Sir Adrian Boult was not greatly in evidence in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century, so it made some amends that he appeared fairly early in Great Artists of the Century (this disc has actually been around for several months). I was certainly not alone in thinking it strange that this celebrated recording of the Schubert "Great" C major took so long to reappear; in the meantime his 1934 version of the work had already made it to CD [review but nla], as had a 1969 Prom performance on BBC Legends [review]. This leaves the 1950s Nixa, to which EMI also hold the rights, still to come - not that I hold out much hope of that.

In his day, Boult was seen as an objective, idealist interpreter, and his performance of the Schubert – and the classical repertoire in general – was considered at the opposite pole to the subjective, romantic manner of Furtwängler. With the passage of time, this view needs modification. For one thing, the "authenticists" have taught us a new form of objectivism with their upfront tempi and their rejection of the long legato line. For another, the "authenticists" themselves have muddied the waters since a conductor such as Harnoncourt, while imposing an "authentic" manner of playing on the orchestra, is actually completely subjective from another point of view, often adopting as wide a range of tempi as Furtwänger ever did.

Today, it seems to me, Boult’s "Great" C major appears as a profoundly romantic document. Not because he changes tempo freely, though in fact he does allow slight modifications for second subjects. He closes the first movement with an emphatic rallentando and occasionally broadens elsewhere to bring home structural points, but not to the same extent as Furtwängler or even Walter or Böhm.

But no, I mean profoundly romantic in that he reveals the symphony as a melancholy "Winterreise", a tragic evocation of the Austrian countryside by a composer who could still see life but no longer felt himself a part of it. Indeed the same perhaps applied to Boult himself, a nostalgic recreation of a Viennese world the tail-end of which he had known. Boult’s Schubert, no less than that of Furtwängler, Walter and Böhm, is a retrospective view by a generation which had known Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. Even the idea of an overall structure – a program, a sort of "darkness to light" progression – is essentially romantic, as is perhaps idealism itself.

As to how he gets this particular result, though his tempi are in the main swift – once past the introduction which, like virtually all his generation, he took in four not in two – he grasped, and conveyed to the listener, the fact that Schubert’s invariable grouping of bars into units of four actually means that there is an overlying slow tempo behind the fast tempi. The finale spins with the best, but listen to how he inflects the theme which begins with four equal notes. With some conductors the four notes are weighted equally, but with Boult there is a little push on the first so we hear, as it were, not four short bars but one long one. It is this sense of inexorable slow movement which gives the performance its unique character, Schubert the melancholy wanderer even while life is dancing vitally around him.

My only reservation about this certainly great performance, is that I seem to have heard it sounding just that little bit more incandescent in a relay from the Proms. If the performance I heard was that from 1969 now on BBC Legends, then I must have imagined it, since that performance does not particularly alter the situation. But I think the one I heard would have been in the 1970s.

Even among Boult’s own generation, there were alternative, non-romantic views. In 1958 in Turin, Vittorio Gui gave a performance of which even Sir Roger Norrington should approve. The introduction is definitely "in two" with a non-legato delivery of the horn theme, the distinctly up-front first movement closes with as little rallentando as is possible without being actually dogmatic. The Andante con moto goes at a chirpy Haydnesque pace (12:07 compared with Boult’s 14:03), the Scherzo is exhilarating if a little breathless and the Finale is a zip. Shades of Toscanini? I think not, for Gui was his own man and many of his interpretations were quite different from Toscanini’s; rather, he arrived at Schubert by starting from Haydn, Mozart and Rossini, just as the authenticists have, rather than working backwards from Mahler.

The trouble is, Gui wasn’t asked to record the work. I suppose people didn’t realise he was anticipating 21st Century performances and just thought he’d got it wrong. If ever a conductor got the best of both worlds, by the way, it was Karel Ančerl, and he wasn’t invited to record the work with his own Czech Philharmonic for his recording company – Supraphon called in Konwitschny from Leipzig and it is thanks to East Berlin radio that Ančerl was able to set down a truly incandescent reading.

But back to Boult, for his interpretation stands beside those of Furtwängler, Walter and Böhm as an essential document of the romantic view of this symphony and, if a few years earlier Boult might have energised the reading just that little bit more, this late version has a mixture of serenity and melancholy, together with a marvellous sense of inevitability, which is moving in itself.

The Brahms couplings are not exactly an original choice, for they have hardly been out of the catalogue since they first appeared. Counting the original LP, I now have this lively and well-proportioned version of the Overture four times, and at least the other discs come with more Brahms! Since he had previously recorded the piece for Nixa and World Record Club (in 1960s stereo) might we not have had one of these for a change? The Baker Brahms Rhapsody is a classic of the gramophone – though there are those who feel (I don’t) that the flowing tempo robs the music of its stark tragedy – but surely most serious collectors will have it already. Still, if you haven’t then this is another reason to snap this disc up.

Christopher Howell



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