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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61 (1806)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-5)
Nathan Milstein (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult
Filmed at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 6 February 1972 (Beethoven) and 18 October 1972 (Vaughan Williams)
NTSC System 4:3; format; DVD-9 (dual layer-single sided); Sound Format LPCM Mono 2.0 (PCM dual mono) Menu Languages E, F, D, E
EMI CLASSICS DVB 38845690 [69:05]


Fresh from my audition of the Christopher Nupen DVD portrait of Milstein (see review) comes this concert film of the great man with Adrian Boult in 1972. We also see Boult conducting Vaughan Williams’ Eighth Symphony at a concert in the Festival Hall later in the year.

A few things before we begin. Navigation is easy and effective. Individual movements can be cued in. There is a minimal booklet as this series has dispensed with text and prefers its documentary information to be presented as an appendix in the disc. I don’t actually enjoy wading through texts on screen, even when written by Tully Potter, but it’s not too onerous here. I’d still prefer to read a booklet however. The disc cover also features a rather more elderly looking Milstein than was the case in 1972 and the uniform black and white “archival” look may not prepare one for what is actually a colour film.

Such matters aside this is a fascinating document of a meeting between the two men with Boult conducting the LPO, then led by the saturnine and brilliant Rodney Friend. One of the more fascinating things is that, for all his aristocratic and motionless command, Milstein shows signs of being uncomfortable. He repeatedly turns his back on the audience to check his tuning. Signs of unease appear as early as the orchestral introduction when Milstein plays along with the first fiddles. I saw Shumsky do this when he performed the Elgar at the Barbican (one of the greatest performances of anything I’ve ever heard) and it’s hardly a novelty. But Milstein does it throughout the Beethoven. Whether it was a problem with the strings, or the heat (or coldness) of the hall that February evening it’s hard to say. But his tuning is unusually suspect from time to time and he spends “off –duty” passages on more remedial work than one would possibly expect from an otherwise untroubled performance.

That performance is nevertheless of an elevated standard. He uses his own cadenzas and phrases in the Larghetto with his accustomed seraphic serenity. Despite whatever tuning problems he may have faced, the technique is strong enough to resist. Boult is an accompanist of tremendous sagacity and control. To watch his fabled long baton technique is to be in the presence of a technician of considerable eloquence. With Boult the tip of the baton was the thing. Here as ever he generates power through its precise employment. His left hand is soothing, shushing, never raised above shoulder level. But a final grouse about some of the camera work. There is a lengthy shot of the orchestra from a distance that adds nothing. And someone has decided to cut Milstein’s entries very fine. We see the orchestra, feel the tension of (say) the opening broken octave entry and then suddenly cut to Milstein just as he begins. This happens repeatedly; not especially musical work from the editing booth.

Boult’s on testy form at the beginning of the VW. Person or persons unknown in the audience have irritated him and he turns to the audience and then to Friend with a querulous look and mutters something - a question probably. Friend gives him a dazzlingly unsure smile, looks mildly bewildered and says nothing. The audience quietens. Boult carries on. Bit of a sticky start.

The keynote here is the rhythmic vitality Boult is able to generate at the age of eighty-three. The dynamism is a product of his absolute engagement with the material and his powerful understanding of it. He conveys this through careful, clear and incisive right hand baton work and uses the left hand with sparing incision. The camera work is good. It picks up the brass and wind passages with equal clarity – vital in this of all works -and allows us to see Boult’s meticulous but selective cueing. The camera work here is better than the Beethoven; editing decisions are more pertinent and musical. Boult recorded the symphony twice with the LPO and this is a splendid addition for admirers of the conductor.

I sincerely hope this disc heralds many more such concert performances from Boult – a conductor who could really blaze in such circumstances in the 1970s.

Jonathan Woolf

See also Review by Ian Lace


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