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Symphony No 1/Tragic Overture
Symphony No 2/Academic Festival Overture
Symphony No 3/Alto Rhapsody
Symphony No 4/Haydn Variations

 

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no.1 in C minor op.68 [43:30]
Symphony no.2 in D major op.73 [39:14]
Symphony no.3 in F major op. 90 [36:43]
Symphony no.4 in E minor op. 98 [39:43]
Academic Festival Overture op. 80 [10:10]
Tragic Overture op. 81 [13:13]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn op. 56a [16:57]
Alto Rhapsody op. 53* [12:01]
Monica Sinclair (contralto)*, Chorus of the Croydon Philharmonic Society*
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. no details but stated in Michael Kennedy’s “Adrian Boult” (Hamish Hamilton, 1987) to have been recorded in 1954; issued 1954-5
Only available by downloading at: http://www.classicsonline.com
NAXOS CLASSICAL ARCHIVES 9.80228-31 [56:43+49:24+48:44+56:40]

 

Experience Classicsonline


As if Naxos CDs were not already cheap enough, a large amount of semi-historical material is being made available for download only, costing scarcely more than you would have paid for the original LPs fifty-odd years of inflation ago. If you download everything according to the numbers above you’ll get four not very well-filled CDs corresponding to the contents of the LPs. You can also print out covers but there are no notes or inlays as far as I can see. Nor is there any information about the transfer engineers. Having downloaded it all there are various ways of putting it onto just three CDs without splitting any symphony and you also have the option of downloading any of the four "discs" that interest you - the tracks within them are not available separately. I can’t quite get rid of the idea that this is a substitute for the real thing, but it has enabled me to hear a Brahms cycle I have wondered about for a long time.

There are a number of artists whose careers substantially took place during the era of 78s and mono LPs but whose longevity enabled them to re-record much of their repertoire in excellent stereo. Among conductors, Bruno Walter and Pierre Monteux come to mind, as well as Sir Adrian Boult. When the stereo recordings were made, everyone loved the musicians too much to want to be critical about what were still clearly very good performances. Over the years, the obvious listener-friendliness of the more recent recordings has encouraged a lazy tendency to judge these conductors on their late work.

I discussed Boult’s 1970s cycle of the Brahms symphonies some time ago. I felt that the Second Symphony was a great Brahms performance no matter what the earlier version had to offer – though Mark Bridle, writing of an earlier reissue of the cycle, was not especially impressed. The Alto Rhapsody with Dame Janet Baker has achieved a somewhat iconic status which I don’t intend to put into question. I wondered, though, if the other symphonies and orchestral works, excellent though they are, showed these splendid interpretations at their absolute best. Basing myself on schoolboy memories of the old Nixa LP of the Second Symphony, I wondered what the 1954 cycle had to offer.

This cycle had at least two transfers in the early days of CD but the Nixa catalogue was then bought up by EMI, more, it seems, for the purpose of suppressing it than of making it available. These recordings are steadily entering the public domain, at any rate in the UK and provided European worthies do not go ahead with the threatened 95-year rule. So far Naxos have limited themselves to these download-only issues. I don’t know what has been used as the basis for the transfers, but I notice that while at times – the finale of Symphony 2 and the Academic Festival Overture – the sound has the raw but exciting quality I remember from my schooldays, at other times more filtering appears to have been applied. In Symphony 3 in particular, this seems to have produced rather boomy, bass-heavy results.

The most important performance here is probably that of Symphony 1 and fortunately this sounds pretty well; well enough to make me feel it was as good as we can reasonably expect of 1954 mono. There is great fullness and the strings have a “saturated” sound recalling some of Furtwängler’s recordings. Much of this is due, indeed, to the fact that Boult is obtaining playing of quite extraordinary fervour. The opening pounds, for example, but it also soars. When the Allegro arrives the tempo is fairly broad, but Boult has the players really digging into the details so a great momentum is built up. Despite his reputation as a “strict-time” conductor, Boult makes some telling departures from his original tempo here and there, always for the purpose of clarifying the music rather than indulging it.

The second movement is a little broader than it later became – but still fast by many other conductors’ standards – and has great eloquence. The care taken over the pizzicato basses in the third movement gives it an unusual toughness. The finale, like the first movement, is fairly broad but builds up powerfully to a tremendous ending. Here, it seems to me, is a great Boult Brahms 1 to set alongside the late no. 2.

Turning to the 1970s performance, one can see why nobody particularly queried it at the time. For those relying on memories of the earlier LPs - which had been long unavailable - or on other Boult performances, the interpretation remained substantially the same and can be heard in good stereo sound. The lower-key openings to the outer movements – more meditative than powerful – can be justified on the grounds of not pulling out all the stops straight away. But, while the later disc is broadly satisfying, the lesser grip over detail and a lower level of orchestral attentiveness cumulatively deprive the performance of its former greatness.

Before proceeding further I would like to show a comparative table of the earlier and later timings. Expectations that the earlier cycle would be Toscanini-swift and the later one broader emerge somewhat challenged.

Work

Movement

1954-5

1970s

Symphony no. 1

I

12:39 no repeat

15:40 with repeat

 

II

09:14

08:27

 

III

04:54

04:51

 

IV

16:43

16:11

Symphony no. 2

I

14:57 no repeat

19:16 with repeat

 

II

09:25

08:29

 

III

05:09

05:17

 

IV

09:43

09:53

Symphony no. 3

I

13:38 with repeat

13:10 with repeat

 

II

08:37

08:35

 

III

05:50

06:06

 

IV

08:38

09:17

Symphony no. 4

I

12:40

12:32

 

II

09:52

10:00

 

III

06:35

06:28

 

IV

10:36

10:13

Academic Festival Overture

 

10:10

09:46

Tragic Overture

 

13:13

13:51

Haydn Variations

 

16:57

17:25

Alto Rhapsody

 

12:01

11:53

It will be noticed that the younger Boult took the view, prevalent at the time, that the repeat was necessary only in Symphony 3. This first movement is a pithy, concentrated affair which seems too short without the repeat. While I am happy to hear the repeats in Symphonies 1 and 2, these more extended movements are also fully satisfying without.

Boult always made a point of studying his scores afresh every time he returned to a piece. In the case of Symphony 1 I wouldn’t say he reached any very different conclusions for his last recording, but in the case of Symphony 2 the differences are numerous. There was much more obvious conductorial control in 1954, with little inflexions, commas and the like all through. The whole manner of articulation and phrasing was later modified: the clucking woodwind quavers a few minutes into the first movement became gentle and relaxed, the episodes in the third movement, brilliant in 1954, became delicate and humorous. The symphony starts more swiftly and lightly in the late recording, with the three-note motto setting up a ground-swell that surges inexorably through the entire work to its triumphant conclusion. Only Boult or Klemperer at their best could achieve such structural unity – in Brahms, Klemperer’s Symphony 3 has similar qualities. So Boult’s late no.2 remains indispensable for me, yet I shall also need the 1954 performance for its passion and vitality. The sheer visceral excitement of the brass playing in the finale is pretty staggering.

Symphony 3 is more problematic. The orchestra here sounds to be smaller and less good. Right from the start there is a lack of unanimity and the playing is sufficiently slipshod throughout to be distracting. Perhaps aware that things are not going well, Boult imposes some jabbing accents and there is a sort of animal excitement to the louder passages, though at a fairly slow tempo. The slowish tempo takes its toll in the more lyrical parts, which sit down heavily.

The later performance disappointed me when I first heard it; in my greener years I wanted this first movement to be vital and bracing above all. Over time I’ve come to admit that a mellow approach has its own virtues. With much better orchestral playing from the LSO the sheer flow of the 1970s recording makes for more satisfying results.

In the middle movements Boult found good tempi in 1954 which let the music flow of its own accord and there is some nice phrasing. But so he did in the later record, again with superior playing.

Boult surprised his admirers in his last recording by an abrupt tempo change in the finale – repeated at a similar point later in the movement. Perhaps they should not have been surprised. The same change was there in 1954, except that he made an accelerando in the passage leading up to it, so the effect was less abrupt. Following a somewhat doleful start, the performance takes on an almost Toscaninian fire. The trouble is that it loses steam badly when the original tempo takes over again. By making less of an explosion of the faster passage in the later version, Boult achieves a better unity there. So, of the two I prefer the late one. But, as I suggested above, Klemperer is the man to go for if you want the sort of experience Boult provides in Symphony 2.

By the way, is this really the LPO? After all, for contractual reasons the cycle originally came out as played by the “Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra”. So if, for some scheduling problems, Symphony 3 had to be made with an inferior band, the same pseudonym could have been attached just the same.

Symphony 4 is a pretty powerful affair. The differences are similar to those in Symphony 2, except that the late Symphony 4 doesn’t rise to quite the same exalted level. Either that or this same approach doesn’t suit Symphony 4 so well. The late first movement gains in flow what it loses in massive power. Near the recapitulation of the second group the tempo has become so deliberate in 1954 that Boult can be heard deliberately cranking it back to the original speed – this might have warranted a retake.

In 1954 it is perhaps the closeness of the recording of the string pizzicato that gives the impression in the slow movement that the music is striding ahead without proper breathing space. The later recording has an affecting serenity.

The 1954 scherzo is one of the most purposeful I have ever heard, but it’s a bit one-sided. The later version has more sense of enjoyment, and a graciousness in the gentler moments. There’s some pretty colossal power in the finale, but in giving space to his very fine flautist Boult slows down more than one would expect. He has a more seamless flow in the later version, but does not quite find the force to ram home the ending. Force was certainly not lacking in 1954.

These two surprisingly different performances somehow complement each other without either of them being ideal. Memory insists that I was present at an ideal Boult Brahms 4 with the SNO in Edinburgh in 1971. It is a pity that Boult has not as yet been subject to the sort of delving accorded to such figures as Scherchen, Schuricht or Knappertsbusch.

The Academic Festival Overture is another example of a radical rethink. In 1954 it began slowly, almost mysteriously. Perhaps because of the relative ragbag construction - by Brahms’s lofty standards - Boult sought maximum characterization of each theme rather than symphonic cogency. Nonetheless it all builds up, leading to a terrific explosion of joy at the end.

Twenty years later Boult began at the tempo at which he intended to continue. Though the various episodes are characterized with affection he allows precious little leeway in a straight-down-the-line interpretation that I have always found rather unimaginative, almost bandmasterly. A definite win for the earlier one, I’d say. This was the only Brahms piece of which Boult set down an “in-between” version, on a programme of short orchestral pieces for World Record Club in the late 1960s. Relying on very distant memories, I’d say the tightening up process was already in place by then.

The 1954 Tragic Overture is shattering, with stinging attack and much drama. However, the interesting thing about the later traversal is that it is not just a run-down version of the earlier one, it adopts a quite different style. Take the opening chords. The staccato is impatient, almost brutal in the earlier recording. In the later one the strings have a more rounded attack, with longer bows and less short staccato. The emphasis of the performance is on warmth and humanity rather than blistering tragedy.

It would be easy to say, well perhaps the poor old man was only half in control in the 1970s and just had to take what the orchestra gave him. But no, the character of the performance is consistent and, in any case, the LSO of the day, well into André Previn’s tenure, would have logically provided something more bright and brilliant in the absence of conductorial input.

Something similar has happened to the Haydn Variations. The 1954 one is very lively with some quite upfront tempi. The later one – and this was very late, recorded with the Serenades some years after the Symphonies – is not just slower, the style is different. The theme sounded bright and perky in 1954 with some sharp staccatos. The late one has only semi-staccatos. It sounds relaxed and gracious. Pretty well the same sort of comparison can be made with every variation. More than preferring one to the other, I was just amazed that the same conductor could change so much. Only at the end did I find the late recording at a disadvantage. After a good start to the finale, Boult’s concern to avoid pomposity is a little underwhelming. The earlier one avoids pomposity because it is faster.

Differences in the Alto Rhapsody are really a matter of the soloists. Monica Sinclair’s top notes soar well and her lower ones are firm. In the middle her questionable intonation tends to lend a somewhat expressionist, Bergian flavour to Brahms’s already bleak vision. With a closely recorded and somewhat ragged choral contribution there is no competition here for Dame Janet Baker’s celebrated version. I realize there are some who feel that the fast tempi on that recording sacrifice depth at the expense of formal elegance, but the Sinclair performance is unlikely to answer their prayers.

Readers may have noticed that my conclusions rather more complex than I expected. I am reminded that Boult, in his late interpretations of British music, seemed to be casting his mind back to the England of his youth. His Tallis Fantasia, infused with Hardy-like toughness and timelessness in the 1950s, became nostalgic in the 1970s. His Elgar 2, fierce and almost angry in the 1940s, became by degrees through to his final recording a requiem for a lost era.

But Boult had also been well acquainted with pre-First World War Germany. He had studied pretty well all the leading German and Austrian conductors in action and his ideal Brahms interpreter remained Steinbach – who was also Brahms’s own favourite. But then came Toscanini. If any of Boult’s 1930s Brahms were to surface – unlikely, I fear – the influence of Toscanini would surely be strong. By 1954 Boult was already 65 and his tempi were broad by Toscanini standards. However, the orchestral style adopted, aiming at brilliant articulation and razor-sharp attack – though the LPO of the day could not provide this to NBC standards – was still clearly Toscaninian. In his late cycle, then, I believe Boult was deliberately shedding the Toscanini influence and seeking to recreate the Brahms he remembered from his youth. The softer orchestral style is not to be interpreted as a lessening of grip, though the infirmities of old age did also mean that his intentions were not always fully realized. His earlier methods produced a great Symphony 1, his later ones a great Symphony 2. Great Symphonies 3 and 4 may exist in off-the-air tapings. For all the merits of the 1954 Fourth I’d say the later ones come closer to greatness without quite reaching it.

At under £8 for downloading the lot it would seem penny-splitting to pick and choose. However, those with the later cycle and not too much shelf space might like to pull down Symphony 1 plus the Tragic Overture.

Christopher Howell

 

 

 


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