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Sir Adrian Boult. The 1956 Nixa-Westminster stereo recordings, Vol. 1
CD 1
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983) Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor [43:17]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Falstaff – Symphonic Study in C minor, Op. 68* [33:48]
CD 2
Sir Edward ELGAR Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63 [52:33]
Cockaigne, ‘In London Town’ – Concert Overture, Op. 40 [14:02]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Soirées musicales, Op. 9** [9:59]
CD 3
Benjamin BRITTEN The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Op. 34 (Narration: Sir Adrian Boult)** [19:38]
Matinées musicales, Op. 24** [13:13]
Four Sea Interludes Op. 33a and Passacaglia, Op. 33b (Peter Grimes)** [24:14]
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Op. 34** [18:55]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall 15-17 August, 1956; *20 August 1956; ** 30-31 August 1956
FIRST HAND RECORDS FHR06 [3 CDs: 77:05 + 76:34 + 75:59]

Experience Classicsonline


 
These recordings all emanate from a series of sessions that the American label, Westminster, and their British partner, Nixa Records, organised in August 1956. One of the first things to note is their sheer productivity. Many people would consider that Boult and his players had done a pretty sterling job in the time available on the basis of the eight works listed above. However, the same sessions also produced a complete set of the four Schumann symphonies and all the overtures by Berlioz – these are promised in a companion volume to be released by First Hand Records in due course.
 
Unusually for the period, the recordings were made in stereo only – according to a most interesting booklet note by Peter Bromley, mono versions were mixed down from the stereo tapes for separate issue. Apparently the stereo master tape of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra can’t be traced so in this set we are offered a stereo version of the score without narration, transferred from LP, and a mono version, with narration, transferred from the mixed down mono master. FHR assure us that, as far as they know, the mono version with narration was only ever released in mono, and thus no stereo edited version exists. All these recordings were issued in the USA as stereo LPs by Westminster but Nixa limited themselves to a partial release of the material in the UK and on mono LPs only. Most of the performances have made it onto CD previously but the account of Cockaigne has never before been released in the UK in any format.
 
Before discussing the performances I must say that the sound quality on these recordings is really very good indeed. True, there are some instances where the recordings slightly betray their age but, in all honesty, few allowances need to be made and one soon forgets that one is listening to performances that are over fifty years old. Truly, the Westminster engineers did a first rate job and their skill has been matched by Ian Jones, who made these transfers.
 
The performances are well worth preserving, partly for their quality but also partly because they add to our appreciation of Boult. His Elgar interpretations are very familiar to collectors – this set contains, for example, the second of his five recordings of the Second Symphony and the second of the three recordings of Falstaff that he made. On the other hand, the music of Britten featured much less in his recorded repertoire at least – indeed, I can’t immediately recall any other Britten recordings by Boult. And Walton was similarly an infrequent feature in his programmes. I’m sure this is the only studio recording he made of the B flat minor symphony, though I do recall attending a concert in Bradford, probably in the late 1960s, when he performed it with the Hallé.
 
This recording of the Walton symphony has recently been issued by Somm (review). I haven’t heard that transfer but I note that my colleague, Jonathan Woolf, a most experienced judge of vintage issues, commented that “The recording isn’t, to be honest, any great shakes even for this vintage”. Perhaps that impression owes something to the transfer, for I thought the sound offered by First Hand was decent enough. Having said that, the sound quality in most of the other performances struck me as being a bit brighter. It will be noted that the Walton was recorded fairly early on in the sessions – I wonder if it was the very first recording made? – and perhaps the engineers refined their work as the sessions progressed. I used to have this recording of the symphony many years ago on LP but it was eventually eclipsed by the electrifying Previn performance on RCA (see review) and discarded. I think Previn’s account, still my favourite, eclipses this Boult reading for sheer panache and verve but I plead youthful misjudgement as my excuse for discarding Boult completely because now, with better acquaintance with the score, I can see that his performance has much to offer. The first movement is more sober than Previn – and some other versions – but Boult still plays the music with purpose and ensures that the rhythms, which are so crucial in this movement, are strongly articulated. One has a sense of patience and feeling for structure. The scherzo, taken at a good speed, as Jonathan noted, is well played. However, to my ears it’s just a bit on the polite side: the essential menace and malice is not quite there. But Boult comes into his own in the slow movement. His reading has the necessary intensity and is well controlled. The main climax (from around 7:00 to 8:14) is very powerful. I think his reading of the finale is a success too and the fugal episodes are driven along well. Overall, while this might not be a library choice it’s a not inconsiderable version and I’m glad to have rediscovered it.
 
Boult proves his worth in the Britten items also. Personally, the narrated version of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is something I can do without at any time – Boult’s narration is a little bit schoolmasterly but at least he has the virtue of clarity in his delivery and the words are delivered ‘straight’ with no attempt to draw attention to the narrator. But if I can do without The Young Person’s Guide, then Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell is quite another matter. These are expert and very clever variations and Boult does them very nicely. Perhaps the trombone and tuba variation is a bit too stately and pompous – you’d never credit the marking is Allegro molto! But, that apart, I found his interpretation most enjoyable and the playing is good too. The recording is very satisfactory, with the percussion well reported – sample the xylophone glissandi near the end.
 
Britten is also in clever and entertaining mode in the Soirées musicales and Matinées musicales and in these expertly crafted miniatures Sir Adrian proves that he’s no sober sides. In several of the pieces there’s a discernable twinkle in the Boult eye. The LPO respond with lively playing and I enjoyed these light pieces very much. At the other end of the emotional scale lie the Peter Grimes pieces. Boult really does these very well. The rich, sonorous brass interjections in ‘Dawn’ are most imposing – a credit to the engineers as well as to the performers – and the chattering energy of ‘Sunday Morning’ is well conveyed. Best of all is ‘Storm’ where Boult unleashes a most convincing tempest. The playing is exciting and it’s vividly captured by the recording. My ear was caught by the frightening, dull bass drum around 1:00. It’s good to find the powerful ‘Passacaglia’ included also and the conductor builds this music up convincingly.
 
But if Sir Adrian Boult is not renowned as a Britten conductor, everyone recognises his eminence in Elgar and here we have three notable performances that reinforce his reputation. The Cockaigne will be new to UK collectors at least and it’s well worth attention. Boult unfolds Elgar’s colourful portrait of Old London Town with skill and no little flair. He’s just as convincing in Falstaff. He may not bring the red-blooded panache and character of Barbirolli (see review) to the piece but he does bring to it a fine sense of structure and he characterises the music strongly. It’s a colourful and vivid performance in which Boult is aided and abetted by some acute, lively playing by the LPO. The recorded sound seems brighter to me when compared with the Walton performance and the horns register more successfully here. On the debit side the percussion is sometimes too closely balanced, notably in the ‘Falstaff’s March’ section (CD 1, track 8). It seems to me that Boult conveys very successfully the invention and wit of Elgar’s music. He captures the pathos too and the closing pages are done very well. I don’t know if this recording represented a single ‘take’ – probably not – but it sounds like one.
 
The stand-out performance in the set, however, is that of the Second Symphony. I don’t know why but I realised that I hadn’t listened to the symphony for quite a while. The fine performance reminded me how much I love and admire this wonderful work. The first movement is superb, right from a surging, confident start at an excellent pace. Throughout the movement Boult is in total command of the structure and, crucially, shows a masterly control of the ebb and flow that’s at the heart of Elgar’s music. The slow movement is a noble elegy, which he shapes with complete understanding. The LPO plays with great feeling, not least in that wonderful passage (from 7:37) where Elgar pits a gently keening oboe melody in triplets against the main theme, quietly intoned by the horns. Here Boult conveys patrician sadness. This is as fine an account of the movement as I can recall hearing.
 
The fire that wasn’t quite there in the scherzo of the Walton symphony is properly present in Elgar’s scherzo. From 4:30 onwards the build-up to the percussion-dominated climax is held under control and throughout the movement, as well as putting across the exciting passages Boult is a master of light and shade. The final pages, with the horns shooting off like musical sky-rockets, are very exciting. The finale is handled with understanding. Everything sounds just right and inevitable. Boult keeps the momentum going very well, though he’s alive to the autumn tints in the music also. The closing pages (from 10:51), where the “Spirit of Delight” motif returns, are expertly handled. Michael Steinberg has drawn a parallel between these pages and the closing moments of the Brahms Third, one of Elgar’s own favourite pieces. I think there’s a lot in that and it registers particularly strongly when one hears the music conducted by someone who was also a noted interpreter of Brahms (see review).
 
This is a splendid set, which all admirers of Sir Adrian Boult should hear. As I said at the start, the sound quality is remarkably good. The presentation is first class, with two good and informative essays and some evocative black and white session photographs. First Hand Records have done us a great service in making these recordings available again and in doing such a fine job over the transfers and presentation. I look forward keenly to the next volume.
 

John Quinn
 
And a review from Rob Barnett:-
 
Listening to Boult's bitingly vital Walton points up the expansive qualities given priority by William Boughton in his recent recording on Nimbus. For all the analogue vinegar of the 1956 stereo recording there's no denying Boult's drive and chiselled precision. The whole thing is through in 43:17 against Boughton's 46:45. Boughton is not poor by its side but its strengths differ. It leans towards detail and the mile-wide span rather than the emotional vortex favoured by Boult. Boughton scores in the finale in bringing out the music’s epic aspects.
 
Boult zips and zaps his way through the Scherzo with the prescribed ‘malizia’ and the horns have a relished metallic throatiness. Yes, there is the usual analogue background 'shush' but it is even, unchanging and uncontoured. On the other hand those final Boult hammer-blows are fragile rice-paper parchment – unsurprising by comparison with Boughton's full-spectrum modern recording.
 
Boult’s Falstaff shares the virtues of his Walton 1. It positively sprints along and while lacking the romantic glow of the famous Barbirolli 1966 recording it is a tonic - so vivid, so sharply etched, chiselled and goaded forward. The recording renders every detail crisply. The edgy trills of the tambourine at 3:48 are just one delight among many. The engineers also draw in page-turns and chair creaks; no harm in that. Even so, as an interpretation, it has to take a step down to Bernard Herrmann's most impressive and superbly coloured CBS Falstaff from the 1940s - issued on Andrew Rose's Pristine label.
 
Elgar 2 is deftly handled by Boult who brings to the reading a weighty determination. The level of sheer verve is high and the whole approach is invigorating and in keeping with the Walton. While it is not as wild and woolly as the Solti on Decca this is Boult at his warmest and keenest. In the finale those off-beat syncopated blows are as exciting as any version Boult recorded. The 1944 BBCSO version is reputed to be his most vital but for me this 1956 reading stands at an apex in the Boult discography.
 
Boult's 1950s Nixa Cockaigne is full of tempestuous power as we hear in the little whirling string figures in the first minute. It’s fascinating effort and grand music making though I still prefer Barbirolli’s EMI studio tape (see review).
 
The Young Person’s Guide is in a single 18:55 track and is in wheezy stereo. The Soirées Musicales is zestful, artful, sentimental, balletic, and in the case of the tr.9 fully up to Tchaikovskian standards with castanets and no holds barred Spanishry. The Matinées Musicales are in the same frivolous, precise and balletic mood-frame as the Soirées. The sound is ‘blasty’ in tr.10.
 
The Grimes Interludes and Passacaglia are finely done but with the analogue ‘shush’ rather more in evidence. The only real downside is that the bass is a shade muddy which does not strengthen the Storm movement. Interesting as a reading but Previn delivers with greater virility and is blessed with superb analogue from almost two decades later than Boult.
 
I have always loved the ‘Grimes’ Passacaglia – effectively a symphonic episode in compressed form. It's wonderfully atmospheric with an utterly compelling stride. For Britten this untypically emotional piece reaches towards Barber's great orchestral interludes: the Essays and the Shelley Scene. One of Britten's finest productions, for me, it ranks alongside the Sinfonia da Requiem and Our Hunting Fathers. The viola adds a rasping Greek chorus to the proceedings whose Suffolk centre of gravity is brought home by the arcing woodwind and brass chatter arising from 1.00 to 2.00. It’s superbly done but cannot escape the constraints of 1950s technology. Previn on EMI is immensely enjoyable given his much more succulent and refined sound.
 
The first version of YPG on CD 3 has Boult narrating over the music - the whole thing in mono. Boult is dignified and kind. What a delight to hear English spoken in this way though no doubt some will find it stilted. Then at end of the CD the Guide is reprised but this time in splendid stereo. In this case the disc divides each variation into separate tracks. I was surprised by how well the recording sounded.
 
The three CDs are housed, each in their own pocket, in a four segment foldout card casing of the type favoured recently for Brilliant Classics budget releases. The fourth fold carries the booklet. It’s also rather like the design favoured by Sony for their recently issued ‘Music of America’ series.
 
The liner booklet is in English only favouring bold simplicity in which substance rather than the design play-pit is the objective. The track details are fully listed and session dates, locations and catalogue numbers of the original LP issues are cited. The music notes are lucidly handled by Colin Anderson while Peter Bromley provides the Westminster label history. For those steeped in nostalgia FHR treat us to reduced images of the covers of the original LP sleeves. Both booklet and sleeve are liberally decked out with session candids which add to the period flavour and through which we see the technical team of Kurt List, Herbert Zeithammer, Ursula Franz and Mario Mizzaro at work.
 
This First Hand Recordings set of transfers largely taken from the original analogue tapes is marked ‘Vol. 1’ so we can hope perhaps that the complete Boult Sibelius tone poems, dating from the same era, will follow. We know from the Somm and Omega-Vanguard transfers that those Sibelius tone poems share with this Walton 1 a tension and sharpness that redound to everyone’s credit.
 
While there is the faintest leaning toward shrillness and the breadth and richness of bass is limited these are tirelessly exciting readings. The recordings have never sounded as good.
 
Rob Barnett
 

 


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