Boult Conducts English Music
Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Eight English Dances, Opp. 27; 33 [17:22]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Three Bavarian Dances, Op. 27*** [11:47]; Chanson de matin* [3:18]; Chanson de nuit* [4:06]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Perfect Fool: Ballet Music, Op. 39 [10:46]
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
A Shropshire Lad [8:41]; The Banks of Green Willow [5:25]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, *18-19 February, 1954; **20 October, 1954; ***21 October 1954; 1-2 November, 1954
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC193 [79:43] Also available as a download here
This is a valuable collection, much of it core Boult repertoire, though it contains two items, the two sets of Arnold dances and Walton’s Siesta, that he did not otherwise record. If for no other reason than that, this disc will be attractive to admirers of Sir Adrian.
Most of the performances are very good, though I was a bit disappointed with the Walton. It sounds a bit matter-of-fact and lacking the sultry sensuousness that the music requires. Mind you, the recording doesn’t help. It’s a touch strident and unsubtle. In a note on the Pristine website Andrew Rose says that even though all the recordings were made at the same venue and by the same technical team the sound quality varied. Pragmatically, he took the results of the November 1954 sessions, which offered the best sound, and equalised the others to match it as closely as possible. This seems to me a sensible approach and generally it’s worked well but the Walton is the least successful.
Happily, the Arnold dances fared much better both interpretatively and in terms of the sound quality. Boult’s is not the most unbuttoned account of these pieces that I’ve heard but he still does them very effectively. The Elgar miniatures all come off well. These represent the lighter side of Elgar but Boult was far too shrewd and sensitive a musician to underestimate them. These pieces do not play themselves and a successful performance requires great care, not least in respect of balance and pacing. Boult’s understated mastery serves them well, especially the delightful Chanson de matin, which he does with delightful grace.
The Perfect Fool ballet music comes off very well. Boult gives the exciting opening and closing passages their full due but I especially admire the sensitivity of shading with which he invests the subtle central section.
Tintagel is one of the highlights of the collection. The opening pages are some of the most majestic in all English music and Boult controls the music beautifully. Later on, the glorious climax (track 9, from 10:15) is handled expertly. The recording does struggle to contain some of Bax’s most potent passages but the sound is perfectly acceptable, given its age and an excellent amount of detail is reported, which is a tribute not just to the restorative skills of Andrew Rose but to the engineering of the great Kenneth Wilkinson - all these recordings were engineered by Wilkinson for Decca and the producer was James Walker. Tintagel is one English work where I think Boult’s noble approach, though extremely satisfying, yields to Barbirolli’s red-blooded style. Nonetheless, this Boult performance is not to be underestimated.
Butterworth’s wonderful A Shropshire Lad is conducted with great understanding and maturity by Boult. He judges the whole piece beautifully and paces it perfectly. For Boult at his peerless best in this piece, his Lyrita recording from the 1970s (see review) is essential listening but this earlier account is also extremely successful.
All these recordings were made during Boult’s period as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic (1950-1957) and it shows their partnership to excellent advantage. The playing is very good and responsive. It’s notable how productive these recording sessions were, with the Arnold, Bax, Holst and Butterworth items all set down in two days in November 1954. Though some allowances have to be made - usually at climaxes - for the fact that these recordings are some fifty-five years old they have come up very well and Andrew Rose has done his usual excellent and musical job on them. It’s pleasing that these examples of one of Britain’s finest conductors in his prime have been restored to the catalogue.