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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, op. 32 (1916) [47:12]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)

Crown Imperial – Coronation March (1937) [08:10]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910 rev. 1919) [14:13]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 2-5 January 1945, Corn Exchange, Bedford (Holst), 16 April 1937, Kingsway Hall, London (Walton), 9 April 1940, Colston Hall, Bristol (Vaughan Williams)
BEULAH 2PD12 [69:50]


Sir Adrian Boult premiered "The Planets" – or, as the grateful composer put it, "caused my Planets to shine for the first time" – in 1918. It was a milestone in his career and he remained particularly associated with this work all his life. For a first recording, however, the composer himself was called to set down his thoughts. The primitive conditions didn’t really allow a plausible reproduction of such a massive and colourful score. Happily, by the time Boult made his first recording with his own BBC Symphony Orchestra in its wartime home at the Corn Exchange, Bedford, it was possible to give a quite reasonable impression of the music. Even more happily, he went on to make a further four versions, in 1953 (Nixa, with the LPO), 1959 (Westminster, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra), 1966 (EMI, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra) and 1978 (EMI, with the LPO). The 1966 version marked his return to EMI and the beginning of his rich Indian Summer period. This period very nearly ended as it began for the 1978 recording was his last disc but one.

I have been able to compare the present transfer of the 1945 recording with the 1959 and 1966 versions. I have the Vienna recording on an MCA CD so do not know if the more recent DG transfer has changed anything. It is clear but a bit lacking in body and the instruments seem concentrated around the two speakers without anything very much in between. Whereas I have the 1966 version on an Angel LP. It is rather garishly brilliant, not like most EMI recordings, and I suspect it might have been deliberately tarted up for the American market. No doubt it could be made to sound very fine indeed on CD.

Here are the timings:

The Planets 1945 1959 1966
Mars

07:09

07:17 07:11
Venus

08:01

08:38 08:50

Mercury

03:43 04:01 04:06

Jupiter

07:49 08:29 08:02

Saturn

08:16 08:23 09:09
Uranus 05:50

06:20

06:29

Neptune

06:36 06:15 07:15

 

The timings of the first two are those revealed by my computer, which are not quite the same as those in the CD booklets. According to Beulah’s documentation, the 1945 Mars is actually the slowest of the three, but it clearly isn’t. I’ve had to take the printed timings on trust for the 1966 version since I have it on LP.

The question is, do we have to go back to 1945 for the best Boult, as Beulah themselves suggest?

I think not. The timings register a slight tendency to get slower over the years, but in the case of the biggest differences – Venus and Saturn – it must be noted that in 1945 these were already as slow as could be fitted onto two 78 sides. So possibly the conductor would have preferred tempi fractionally slower even then.

Between the 1945 and 1966 performances of Mars there is really precious little difference. This is a tribute to the quality of the BBC SO of the day, for we all know that the NPO was a very fine orchestra in the sixties. However, the much more modern sound gives the performance greater impact. Indeed, it’s absolutely shattering. The Vienna one is also impressive. It is a tad slower and there is a suggestion that the brass are finding it quite fast enough at times. I don’t know if the orchestra had ever played the work before but performances of Holst in Vienna have never been two-a-penny. Boult makes creative use of the slower tempo to produce a slightly more static performance that illustrates very well the ravages of war.

The NPO performance of Venus is a quite remarkable artistic collaboration between orchestra and conductor. There are many passages for solo instruments in this movement and as each one starts you can hear that the player is dying to give his best. You can also feel how Boult gives him the space he needs while keeping a firm control on the overall shape of the piece. Thus the individual talents of the orchestra are welded into something higher than each could perhaps have attained on his own. This really is great conducting.

I suggest that Boult himself was not yet that great in 1945, but he obtains a finely-played performance with a cool, attractive flow. In Vienna the situation was different again. Given the orchestra’s unfamiliarity with the music, he guides them expertly to give an extremely good performance.

Mercury is light and fleet in all three performances – the extra seconds in the later ones don’t result in heaviness. In 1966, though, there is again a feeling that players and conductor are exploring a work they know like the back of their hand and there is greater characterization of the individual moments.

The big tune of Jupiter is an excellent demonstration of how little timings really mean. The 1966 version may be slower than the 1945 one, but the accompanying chords are the lightest of the three and so, with a graciously phrased melody, it is the least heavy. In Vienna things do get a little heavy here, though the outer sections are very alert. In 1945 ponderousness was avoided with a faster speed rather than orchestral finesse.

And so it goes on. All three Saturns are very fine but there is more detailed incident in 1966. In the 1966 Uranus, the magician is sinister as well as vivacious.

In the Vienna Neptune the celesta is apparently at the front of the orchestra, on the far left, while with the NPO it is more discreetly balanced somewhere in the middle, slightly to the right. Also in 1945 it was unobtrusive. I suppose this is what Boult really wanted but I must say I don’t find the effect in Vienna exaggerated. It gives an interesting new slant on the music. Taking this together with the more attractive tone of the Viennese female choir I am inclined to prefer the Vienna Neptune above the others. The final fade, though, benefits from 1966 technology, it really does disappear into nothing. But I must say the ending is remarkably well managed in 1945 given the techniques available. There were no technologically assisted fades then, just the good old-fashioned method of having the choir walk gradually away.

So what are the conclusions? Boult’s interpretation of this work remains a classic. The 1945 version certainly testifies to the excellent state of his BBC SO in spite of the difficult wartime conditions. However, while there certainly are cases where Boult is better remembered by an earlier performance than a late one, in this case there appear no particular musical gains to counterbalance the sacrifice of excellent analogue stereo. Quite the reverse, in fact.

The 1937 Crown Imperial offers an interesting peep into history. It was recorded almost a month before Boult conducted it at the actual coronation. Presumably the idea was to get it into the shops immediately after the event. The recording copes fairly well with Walton’s panoply of sound – it doesn’t sound eight years older than that of "The Planets". Boult made a later version for EMI, together with the other Walton march and those by Elgar. I haven’t heard that, but I would say the 1937 version has a quality which would scarcely be repeatable – that sort of collective excitement and emotion which seems to exist at the time of great royal events.

Incidentally, while Austro-German conductors usually turn to Strauss waltzes for their relaxation, Boult seemingly had a liking for marches, which he conducted with a rare swagger and brio. The LP he made for World Record Club with marches by Sousa, Alford and others should be reissued. Indeed, a two-disc set containing this, the record entitled "Boult Bravo" – including such unlikely items as Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and Wolf-Ferrari’s Jewels of the Madonna Intermezzo – and some of the other lighter items he set down for WRC – I remember there was a Poet and Peasant and some Smetana – would make a highly entertaining issue.

The 1940 Tallis Fantasia is again the first of five. Also in this case there are versions from 1953 (Nixa, with the LPO) and 1959 (Westminster, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra). A further recording with the LPO was issued by Lyrita in 1970 as the original coupling to Boult’s recording of Rubbra 7. A late EMI recording, again with the LPO, came out in 1976. I have heard the 1959 and 1976 ones. There is little difference in timing between these two – 16:14 in 1959, 16:30 in 1976. The 1940 recording is considerably faster – 14:13. While this may have something to do with 78 side-lengths, Boult’s interpretation was a very passionate, forward moving-one in those days. I wonder if Vaughan Williams was in the studio? As a matter of interest, an earlier recording under Boyd Neel was specifically advertised as "personally supervised by the composer", but in any case Boult had had numerous opportunities to confer with Vaughan Williams over the performance of his music, whether or not he travelled to Bristol in 1940.

I have always admired the Vienna version for its Hardy-like stoicism, a quality which is unaffected by the wide vibrato in the solo strings. Indeed, the slightly un-English sound only adds to the universality of the statement. I understand, by the way, that the first violin in this recording was Willi Boskovsky.

Post-1970 Boult performances sometimes seemed nostalgic recreations of an England he remembered from his younger days. The 1976 recording is softer, more gently moulded, more evocative of "England’s green and pleasant land". Of the three I think I favour the Vienna one, but each has its own specific quality. The Lyrita version was made at about the right time to be the finest of all – I hope I shall hear it one day. The 1953 performance would also be interesting to hear – it might give us a clue whether the faster interpretation in 1940 was due to side-lengths or whether Boult genuinely took a swifter view in his younger days.

Alas for Beulah, it seems that I have spent most of this review recommending other recordings. Nonetheless, these are important historical documents. It is right that they should be available and those who buy discs to study great interpretations will find both pleasure and enlightenment in comparing the different Boult recordings of the Holst and Vaughan Williams works. Not to speak of comparing them with other conductors’ interpretations, and that, of course, is yet another story …

Christopher Howell

 

 



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