in the 1970s “Boult-on-Lyrita” sometimes seemed a more exciting
conductor than his contemporary self on EMI. This was because
the Lyrita recordings were recorded by Decca engineers who favoured
a slightly closer, more brilliant, though still very natural,
sound. EMI tended to favour a more distant perspective, such
as one might hear sitting in the middle of a concert hall. When
I last heard “In the South” on HMV 5 721 192 the sound had
considerably more brilliance and presence compared with the
LP. I get the impression it has now been tweaked up a little
more still, and it sounds comparable to the Lyrita recordings
of those years.
used to be fashionable among 1970s Elgarians to consider the
Overtures disc – “In the South” originally came with “Froissart”,
“Cockaigne” and the Handel arrangement – one of Boult’s less
inspired efforts, with some dodgy ensemble from the LPO. I must
say I’ve always loved it. “In the South” soars and surges when
it needs to, but there is also infinite flexibility as Boult
eases into the more lyrical sections – it is this flexibility
that causes a few ensemble problems but does it really matter?
– and there is a withdrawn feeling of inner communion in the
“Canto Popolare”. The whole performance is infused with a sort
of burnished glow, rather like Corot’s paintings of the Italian
you, my reactions to “In the South” seem to be completely up
the spout compared with everybody else’s, for it is an act of
faith among all true Elgarians to declare that the Silvestri/Bournemouth
recording has never been bettered and probably never will be.
Sorry, but I detest it. Very clever of him to make his provincial
band play so well, but all I hear is superb drilling and precious
little music. So bang go my Elgarian credentials.
“Grania and Diarmid” music was written for a play by George
Moore and W.B. Yeats. It is a curious case of Elgar partially
putting aside his own unmistakeable idiom without quite creating
a Celtic one. Heard blind I think I would attribute it to a
French follower of Franck, though the principal theme of the
funeral march has a few Elgarian fingerprints. It is beautifully
came late to the symphonies in his Indian Summer period. When
he returned to EMI in 1966 mass duplication of repertoire was
not yet fashionable. Barbirolli’s EMI recordings were not so
old and there seemed little chance of Boult being allowed to
compete with them. He therefore accepted Richard Itter’s invitation
to record the works for Lyrita. These recordings, first issued
in 1968, will doubtless appear on CD in due course. When he
recorded the First Symphony Boult was 87 and could not always
summon up the energy to match the best of his previous interpretations.
I think this can be noticed here and there in this recording.
It is not that vitality is lacking, indeed listeners may be
amazed at certain moments in the first two movements how much
energy he could still transmit. But he seems to retire gratefully
into the more inward moments without quite relating them to
the grand overall plan, as he still could when he set down “In
the South”. As further evidence that things didn’t quite “click”
between him and the orchestra in these sessions, the Adagio
is surprisingly extrovert, without the hushed pianissimos he
usually drew from the orchestra. Best is the finale, recorded
in another venue – this is not noticeable, at least through
loudspeakers – and on another date. After a fairly low-key
start it proceeds inexorably to its majestic conclusion as the
best Boult performances do.
Introduction and Allegro was also on HMV 5 721 192. Just comparing
the opening I get the idea that the new transfer has a little
more richness and depth. It is certainly a performance of massive
overall conviction, while finding all the time in the world
for wistful poetry along the way. Comparing it with the 1962
performance recorded for World Record Club – and later reissued
on Classics for Pleasure – the difference in recording quality
is drastic. I should say that I am talking about the CFP LP
so maybe a CD transfer could improve things, but in the form
in which I have the earlier version there is little body to
the sound, which also polarizes around the two speakers. Pianissimos
almost drift out of hearing. Boult did sculpt certain phrases
with greater nervous energy in 1962, which is a gain in one
direction. Yet the sheer weight – and I don’t mean heaviness
– of the 1972 version is a gain in another direction. Even if
the recordings were equal I wouldn’t necessarily prefer the
first movement of the Serenade has a gracious, flowing quality.
Boult doesn’t quite capture the sense of dewy-eyed innocence
he had found a few years earlier in his wonderful “Wand of Youth”
record. The Larghetto has all the intimate poetry one hoped
for but what sets the seal on this performance is the finale.
Many conductors seem embarrassed by a movement which ought to
be a finale but doesn’t behave like one. Boult tends it lovingly,
giving it all the time to unfold.
a year after this recording of the Second Symphony was made
a cousin of my mother’s, long resident in the USA, was paying
a visit to London and bought a ticket for a concert more or
less at random. What she heard, in fact, was the last performance
Boult conducted of this symphony, at a Prom. The only seats
still available were in the choir stalls so she saw him face
on. Initially, when she saw a very elderly, frail man helped
onto the platform and seated at the rostrum, she wondered how
on earth he was going to manage, and in fact the initial attack
was ragged. But then she was amazed to see the colour pouring
into his face, he sat bolt upright and, apparently rejuvenated,
conducted the entire performance without any sign of sagging.
Then at the end the colour left him and he became a frail old
man once more. I heard this performance on the radio and can
confirm that it started slackly, then picked up wonderfully.
minor miracle of this kind could not be expected every time
Boult picked up the baton in the recording studio, but it seems
to have done in his final recording of this same symphony, a
work which had very special associations for him. That said,
if you want the opening bars to explode in a frenzy of ecstasy,
Boult would probably never have been your man, even thirty years
earlier. His sequence of five recordings shows him to have become
increasingly aware of the elements in the work which undermine
its superficial aura of Edwardian security. The start is not
orgiastic – and you will need the volume slightly higher in
both symphonies – but nor is it heavy and the inexorably moving
bass line proves that Boult is very much in command. As the
long movement builds up, each successive climax becomes more
colossal than the last, and yet there is a sense that the moments
of unease, of introspection, are the real heart of the movement.
There is no question here, as in the First Symphony, of these
moments not being fully absorbed into the structure.
is there any problem about suitably hushed pianissimos in the
Larghetto, which is unfolded in a single span. Here Boult and
the orchestra seem at one. The power he unleashes at the climaxes
is spine-tingling. And note the word “unleashes” for Boult,
in common with the greatest conductors, could give the impression
that the sound was released from the orchestra, rather
than that the players were being goaded into action.
the Rondo Boult makes a very detailed examination of the shadows
and malign spirits while the pomp and circumstance of the finale
gradually winds down to the lonely closing bars which are seen
to be implicit in the very opening of the symphony. Strange
that Boult, of all people, should have shorn this symphony of
its imperialist trappings more completely than most of his successors.
A truly great performance. EMI reveal extreme insensitivity,
by the way, in presenting it with a cover that quotes the phrase
“… a land Which was the mightiest in its old command”, as they
do in including it in the “British Composers” series, with the
implication that it is of only local interest. It is more deserving
of a place in GROC than a good 50% of what found its way there.
the Lyrita recordings of the Symphonies are reissued it will
be time to discuss their relative merits. I have an idea the
verdict will be for the Lyrita First and the EMI Second. I seem
to remember at least one Prom broadcast of the First which was
considerably more incisive than the present version, so the
definitive Boult Elgar 1 could yet come from BBC Legends. After
what I have just heard I doubt if it is necessary to seek a
further Second. Boult recorded both works back in the days of
78s, of course, and there are two others of no.2: a Pye from
the 1950s, reputed to be marvellous, and one made with the Scottish
National Orchestra in the early 1960s for the short-lived Waverley
label and later issued on CFP. I’ve always been fond of this
but the orchestral playing really is scrappy at times and it
is probably the least important of the five.
been analyzing this issue from the point of view of a Boult enthusiast.
If you’re simply looking for a good “twofer” of the Symphonies
and a few other pieces – the timings are most generous – and if
you don’t mind analogue sound as long as it’s good 1970s stereo,
then don’t let my slight reservations over the First Symphony
worry you too much. It’s still a dedicated performance by one
of the composer’s finest interpreters and you’ll hear some really
great conducting in the other pieces, the Second Symphony above
notes by Andrew Achenbach not only provide an excellent introduction
to the music but also document Boult’s special relationship
with it. The fact that the booklet is in English only reinforces
my suspicion that EMI are not even trying to sell this abroad,
which I find appalling. I appeal to them to re-release the package
in GROC without delay.