Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op. 68 [44:06]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 ‘Enigma’* [30:26]
John Douglas Todd interviews Sir Adrian Boult (extract from 85th birthday broadcast) [3:32]
George Thalben Ball (organ)*
BBC Symphony Orchestra//Sir Adrian Boult
rec. Royal Albert Hall, London 17 August 1976; *29 March 1971; BBC Studios, 25 March 1974 (interview) ADD
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5019 [78:21]

In some quarters Sir Adrian Boult was too easily – and unthinkingly - pigeonholed as a specialist in English music towards the end of his career, chiefly, perhaps, because that was what EMI – and Lyrita – principally invited him to record. However, he had a justifiable reputation as an interpreter of the Austro-German classical repertoire and happily he set down some distinguished recordings for EMI, not least a complete Brahms symphony cycle and a fine Schubert Ninth.

This Brahms symphony performance, given at the Proms in 1976, finds Boult in very fine form and he gets an excellent performance from the BBC orchestra. What impressed me throughout was the sheer vitality of Boult’s interpretation. That’s evident from the very start, where he injects vital impetus into the first movement introduction. The music can sound rhetorically tragic, massive or grandiose in other hands. Boult avoids this trap completely - listen to the timpani stokes, for example; they are firm but there’s no pounding. When the main allegro arrives Boult ensures that the music is invested with fine energy – he takes the exposition repeat, by the way. In fact I can’t readily recall so lithe an account of I other than by conductors following ‘period’ practices, such as Mackerras and Gardiner. This litheness is not just a question of pacing or rhythmic articulation either; it extends to matters of texture and with Boult you never feel that Brahms’s orchestration is dense.

The second movement is warmly lyrical yet Boult always seems clear-eyed. The orchestral playing is good and one notices fine solo contributions from the principal clarinet and oboe as well as from the orchestra’s leader and the first horn in the closing pages. Boult achieves a nice, airy feeling in the third movement, which he relates back, it seems to me, to the composer’s Serenades – if memory serves me correctly, somewhere in my collection I have Boult recordings of those two Serenades.

The introduction to the finale is invested with just the right degree of tension – there’s grandeur in the imposing horn call. When the Big Tune appears Boult gives it sufficient breadth but he also moves the theme along with good purpose. As the movement unfolds there’s palpable urgency – one feels the electricity of a live reading – and, indeed, I had the impression that things get just a little too hectic for a moment around 7:40 but the ensemble is soon fully back on track. The concluding pages are impressive and exciting, earning huge cheers from the audience – and one feels the reception is justified.

The performance of ‘Enigma’ isn’t quite as exciting. It’s a fairly sober account, one might say, though it’s never dull or plain. Rather, Boult lets the music speak for itself, which is a wholly valid stance. One has the impression of level-headed authority. Among things that particularly caught my attention were the tremendously incisive and dynamic timpani playing in Variation VII. The celebrated ‘Nimrod’ is most impressive; Boult’s approach is patrician and dignified and the climax has genuine and unforced grandeur. Variation XI has terrific energy. The finale may surprise listeners for Boult begins it at quite a steady tempo and he maintains close control throughout. However, he still manages to give the music life and grandeur. Towards the end the Royal Albert Hall organ, played by George Thalben-all, adds its weight and sonority to the proceedings, ensuring that the conclusion is indeed ‘nobilmente’

These are fine, wise performances, which act as welcome supplements to Sir Adrian’s studio versions of these works. Even if you have those recordings this CD is well worth your attention for the frisson of a live occasion is definitely present. The recordings have come up pretty well and there’s a characteristically good note by Boult’s biographer, Michael Kennedy.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Enigma Variations ~~ Brahms Symphony 1

Fine, wise performances, which act as welcome supplements to Boult’s studio versions of these works.