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 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
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
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.
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