In this year of Elgar
celebrations it is timely that Lyrita
have brought out this set. It's handsomely
presented - far more so than the original
LPs, way back in the late 1960s. There
are even good reflective notes from
leading Elgar authority Michael Kennedy.
should fascinate because they have languished
in vinyl oblivion for so long. People
are bound to compare them with Boult
of the 1940s and more probably with
Boult of the mid-1970s when EMI brought
out sumptuous but oddly underpowered
recordings of the same two symphonies.
There is in truth more
grip and dynamism in these two recordings
originally made with support from a
certain cigarette manufacturer and benevolent
supporter of many classical music projects.
Boult's hold on the forward movement
of the music is indubitable. Listen
to the eloquent weight and concentration
of the First Symphony. It's also not
short on thrillingly gruff passion at
6:30 in the first movement for example.
The intimately hushed introduction to
the finale of the First Symphony is
wondrously clear. Matters of balance
and tempo are satisfyingly judged. This
is not the most dramatic reading but
it simply radiates authority.
This is aided by a
luminous recording with a degree of
Decca-style spotlighting. The end results
are very agreeable. Stereo spread is
nicely managed and there is plenty to
engage the ear and mind as details bustle
and bristle. My only criticism is that
there is something that sounds on headphones
like a density and maybe a slight pulling
back on the punch during passages of
sustained ff and above. That
said, when at the apex of the finale
Boult has the orchestra slashing and
cross-cutting with the march-like theme
there is a wonderful frisson. The golden
blare of the brass at the end makes
a warmly coloured energetic sunset.
The Second Symphony
is less desirable simply because that
measured gait saps the forward drive.
There is a viscous resistance about
the first movement which emphasises
grandeur over momentum. I think we can
hear the same tendency in the emphasis
of propulsion accorded by Boult in the
second movement of the Second Symphony
around 8:00. Then at that key moment
when the violins scythe downwards borne
along by the scatter of harp raindrops
at 10:02 the gesture emphasises Boult's
desire for clarity. We miss the glorious
impulse of the even more impressive
and passionate Solti version on Decca.
That tendency towards the flaccid can
also be felt in the Rondo although this
is probably the version in which it
is easiest to follow the music in full
score. Then again the finale is extremely
successful and it could easily be argued
that Boult is simply holding back in
the earliest movements so that the finale
can project as tellingly as it does.
Boult slams the message home in a gloriously
contrived climax at 8:30 onwards with
the offbeat rhythmic hammer-blows jazzily
These transfers by
Simon Gibson are exemplary. For older
listeners who recall the LPs it is rather
like experiencing these recordings for
the first time such is the purity of
the sound and the lack of analogue and
surface contact distractions. The horn
whoop which is part of the explosion
that ends the first movement of the
Second Symphony is heard with full frontal
clarity and richness. This is the same
sound captured by the Lyrita team for
the New Philharmonia horns at the end
of the first movement of the Boult-conducted
Moeran symphony. Much the same can be
said of the percussion in the finale
especially the cymbal taps at 6:36 onwards.
One peripheral aside.
In listening to these two discs I was
occasionally and unnervingly reminded
of Sibelius. Boult was also a fine Sibelian.
A pity EMI did not lead him back to
those Nordic regions in the 1970s and
1980s – his Vanguard recordings of the
1960s were outstanding.
Perhaps not the most
passionately headstrong of readings
but full of the satisfaction of maturity
and not short of carefully managed excitement.
Should be in the collection of all Elgarians.