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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.3 in E flat op.55 "Eroica" [46:40]
Coriolan Overture op.62 [06:57]
Symphony no.5 in c minor op.67 [32:02]
Leonore Overture no.3 op.72 [13:43]
"Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra of London" [really the London Philharmonic Orchestra]/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. no info. but Michael Kennedy’s "Adrian Boult" (Hamish Hamilton 1987 p.244) dates the sessions to mid-1957 and confirms the identity of the orchestra.
VANGUARD CLASSICS ATM-CD-1191 [54:10 + 45:03]



 

In the dying days of the LP you could pick up the most surprising things at dirt-cheap prices. Thus it was that I came to know these performances – and also no.7, but not no.6, which was also recorded – in rather dim-sounding pressings on the Austrian Amadeo label. Years earlier I remember seeing some of them in a Woolworth’s store issued by Allegro and wondering what they were like.

At about the same time as they were making these recordings, Vanguard also began what was to be an extensive Schubert series with Lili Kraus. This was abandoned after a couple of issues for lack of funds. Maybe a complete Beethoven cycle was also projected, but only four symphonies and four overtures were set down. To judge from the present reissue, it would have been a notable achievement. Apart from these Vanguard sessions Boult recorded few Beethoven symphonies. There was an 8th with the BBCSO on 78s, there is a recording of the 1st and there was another of the "Eroica" that I know nothing about. His late "Indian Summer" period with EMI only produced a further "Pastoral". The BBC Legends series has so far made little attempt to investigate the biggest BBC legend of all.

Those who have been protesting recently about the iniquity of issuing records with pseudonymous orchestras might be amused to note that for many years the doyen of British rectitude had no difficulty in appearing on record as the conductor of the "Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra", on Pye-Nixa as well as on Vanguard. This was because his own London Philharmonic Orchestra was contracted elsewhere. However, this is a rather different matter from plagiary, since the orchestra that played was the one that got paid. And as for deceiving the public, most people knew what the "Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra" was anyway.

The transfers under discussion show quite startlingly what a difference the sound picture can make to our appreciation of a performance. I have always admired this "Eroica" for the justness with which the opening movement unfolds, but it had also seemed to me one of those cases where Boult, having prepared an excellent interpretation, didn’t fire up the orchestra to the maximum.

It doesn’t sound like that any more. What was originally a rather recessed sound in an acoustic like St. Pancras’ Station is now revealed, particularly over headphones, as an upfront, rostrum-view recording. The strings have brilliance and you can hear the rasp of their bows as they dig into Beethoven’s many sforzandos. The wind have character – the oboe is unusually pungent for a London player – and the brass have great impact. It doesn’t sound entirely natural, but it is exciting. Over loudspeakers the sound polarizes rather, the violins well to the left, all the brass and lower strings crowded around the right-hand speaker.

The lower strings? Yes, this is an aspect which puzzled me, and the Amadeo LP was the same. Boult was famous for having his second violins on the right and his cellos in the middle, as was normal in his younger days. He allowed himself to be talked by Richard Itter into accepting the "modern" arrangement when recording the Elgar symphonies for Lyrita, and it looks as though the Vanguard team persuaded him here. In view of the polarization between speakers I did wonder if this is just electronic jiggery-pokery with a mono recording, but the positions of the instruments seem too definite for that. In the trio of the 5th Symphony’s 3rd movement, where the strings enter fugally, from the lowest to the highest, each entry can be heard to the left of the previous one, quite definitely, both times. And yet … sometimes you get a blast of high strings coming out of the right-hand speaker. Strange.

Never mind. As I say, it’s quite an exciting sound. Boult takes the first movement of the "Eroica" fairly broadly, but with trenchant string articulation and whiplash accents. The climaxes are quite thrilling. There is one moment I have always found strangely moving in this performance. As the coda begins and the music swings back into the home key after the last, dramatic attempt to undermine it, Boult just ever so slightly relaxes to give a sense of grateful relief, as though the composer has at last attained what he had been reaching for over the long span of the movement.

Boult’s conducting of the Marche Funèbre seems to anticipate the "authentic" brigade by several decades. At 13:03 it must be one of the fastest performances on disc – Toscanini’s 1939 recording took 16:40. Here are a few others, beginning with the slowest: Kubelik: 17:38, Furtwängler (Rome): 16:50, E. Kleiber (Concertgebouw): 15:23, Weingartner: 15:11, Keilberth: 14:46, Klemperer (1955): 14:43, Harnoncourt: 14:35, Böhm (BPO): 14:25. Some surprises here. Only one performance known to me is actually faster than Boult: that by Josef Krips. I have this on LP but it seems to be about ten seconds shorter.

In practice, what happens is that Boult does not need to increase his tempo in the contrasting sections – which go at "normal" tempi – and allows the return of the march theme to emerge from the preceding crisis perfectly naturally without any rallentando. A downside, though, is that the march passages sound a little square at times, and paradoxically the closer transfer emphasizes this. The more distant Amadeo transfer lent more apparent poetry to a performance which is mighty impressive but digs less deep than some.

The scherzo is fierily articulated though not exceptionally pacy. The horn-led trio emerges without a change of tempo and without any of Furtwängler’s long-drawn-out romantic glow at the end. The sudden 2/4 bar near the end of the movement is hammered out to great effect.

The finale starts a shade deliberately but with much forceful articulation. The Poco andante, however, is fairly swift, and so we realize that Boult is aiming to present the movement as a single unfolding argument. A powerful coda caps a performance which has a lot to tell us about the symphony.

The Fifth had never seemed to me underpowered even in the Amadeo version, and it emerges as magnificent. Boult is particularly good at presenting a relaxed view of the secondary material, and yet with the motto theme muttering threateningly in the lower strings we realize the actual tempo has not slackened at all. A strongly argued first movement is followed by another swiftish slow movement. Again, here are some timings: Furtwängler (Rome): 11:54, Kubelik: 11:02, Munch: 10:46, Koussevitzky: 10:43, Keilberth: 10:12, Klemperer (1955): 10:07, Harnoncourt: 9:54, Rodzinski: 9:53, Boult: 09:17, E. Kleiber: 9:15, Weingartner: 8:46. As in the "Eroica", Boult’s swifter basic tempo enables him to hold it, so many passages don’t actually sound that fast. In this case, though, I would not have any reservations about a lack of poetry. Some of the wind phrasing is beautifully managed. The menacing references to the first movement’s motto theme are very finely done.

Like Klemperer, Boult finds a single tempo for the scherzo and the finale, with the result that there is no loss of impulse when the scherzo suddenly returns. There is considerable suppressed tension in the strange reprise of the scherzo with its pizzicato strings and ghoulish bassoon, while the famous crescendo builds into a tremendous explosion. Though not exceptionally fast, the symphony rises to a fiery, triumphant conclusion.

"Coriolan" is another example of Boult’s Beethoven at its tautest, and "Leonore no.3" is perhaps even more than this. Boult was a rare visitor to the opera house, but he did conduct "Fidelio" occasionally and in the later stages of the overture his usual objectivity gives way to an unexpected narrative ability. The coda had seemed to me a little sedate in the Amadeo version, but hearing it more vivid sound I realize that Boult is relating it to the final scene of the opera, jubilant rather than urgent.

Boult’s ideal in Beethoven was probably Weingartner, whose lean orchestral sound and objective approach he made his own. Onto this he grafted certain features derived from Toscanini – the whiplash accents and fierce articulation – though without going to extremes. He admired Furtwängler and was a personal friend of Bruno Walter but was never attracted by more romantic methods. These performances show that a Boult cycle would have held up its head in exalted company. If he had been given the opportunity to return to this music late in life, we would have had better recording and more repeats – the first movement of the "Eroica" and the finale of no.5 lack them. But, as the ups and downs of his late Brahms cycle show, it is perhaps to these 1957 recordings that we would have to return to hear his Beethoven at his best.

Vanguard make a virtue of the fact that in this series they provide "the entire original LP liner notes for each CD release". A nice trip down memory lane. Or maybe not. I leave the reader to judge whether this sort of thing needed to be resurrected, replete with the original misprints – or did they creep in more recently?

The slow movement (of Symphony no.5) is an interim of warm, gracious lyricism, full of the "boldest harmonic effects" to which Berlioz’ ears were still sensitive, and to which the ears of our century have probably become hopelessly iured [sic]. It is succeeded by one of the most capricious and glowering of his orchestral "jokes". Few moments in Beethoven have produced such an effusion of literary fantasy. The reader has a wide choice from the heavy hand of fate battering down the walls of the world, to the heavy hand of the double bass section, vibrating with full bow the very floor beneath our feet; a choice of an earthly comedy, or an unnatural farce enacted by the denizens of the sub-earth (who live within us, by the way); between an unflatteringly realistic self portrait of the man, Beethoven (ill-tempered, ungracious, gross and fantastic), and a surrealism of inspired malignancy recovered form [sic] the recesses of primeval myth. A strange movement it is indeed, however one construes it – all the more so for being compounded out of clichés that are made to sound convincingly like fresh discoveries, and in the peculiarities of their use are indeed just that. …

Wow!

Christopher Howell

 


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