Sir Adrian Boult: from Bach to Wagner
London Philharmonic Orchestra
New Philharmonia Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra
See below for full track listings
EMI CLASSICS 6356572 [11CDs: c.12:30:00]
For most music-lovers, the name of Sir Adrian Boult is most closely associated with his compatriot composers; Englishmen like Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams. However, as Martin Cotton points out in the excellent booklet note for this set, he never planned it that way. In fact, in the early stages of his career his primary musical sympathies were with the German Romantics, something cemented by his studies at Leipzig and his observations of Arthur Nikisch. That side of his output has been rather neglected in the light of his advocacy of English composers, so EMI have set about putting this right by re-releasing and re-packaging this set of Boult’s recordings of German music, all performed with British orchestras. In doing so they have not just done a service to the reputation of the composer, but to music-lovers as a whole who can pick up this set at a super bargain price and find a treasure trove of forgotten recordings inside.
In his review of this set for The Guardian, Nicholas Kenyon mentions that the set documents “performance styles in transition”. That’s undoubtedly true, but the first thing that struck me in listening to Boult’s performances of the Brandenburg Concertos is just how fleet-footed they are! He isn’t someone you would naturally associate with period performance, but in fact he isn’t that far away from it, with tempi for Bach that never drag, and are a world away from the elephantine scale of, say, Karajan’s Bach with the Berlin Philharmonic. He still goes for a fairly large scale approach on modern instruments and the sound is undoubtedly cloudier than we have become used to hearing in Bach - “no daylight between the notes”, to use Boult’s own phrase. That’s particularly true in the thick-set string tone which, therefore, makes Nos. 3 and 6 the least successful, but elsewhere the set scores winners with, say, the sparkling trumpets in No. 2 and the pungent recorders of No. 4, and I found the pervasive lilt of No. 1 to be very winning.
The “Classical” symphonies all progress with scale, grandeur and bags of personality. Beethoven’s Pastoral benefits from luscious string tone and a vision of the symphony which has the long view, culminating in a spiritual account of the Shepherds’ Hymn. Mozart’s Jupiter also radiates style, the first movement bustling with life and the Andante feeling like the still, meditative centre of the work. It’s also exciting to hear the clarity of vision with which Boult realises the extraordinary counterpoint of the finale. Schubert’s “Great” C major is also a treat, given the full symphony orchestra treatment and sounding all the better for it. Put next to Mozart’s Jupiter, and given performances which are so similar in style, the listener is left in little doubt about how big an influence the earlier work had on Schubert, probably not something Boult consciously intended (the recording sessions were two years apart) but nonetheless convincing and well argued. Oddly, though, the overtures (Magic Flute and Coriolan) don’t display as convincing a sense of architecture in their reduced scale. In both works Boult seems to take his finger off the pulse at certain key moments and they tend to run away with him, something which also mars Wagner’s Rienzi overture. No such problems with the Viennese excerpts, though, Strauss and Suppé’s brief appearances sparkling with charm.
Towards the end of his career Boult said that one of his major regrets was that he hadn’t spent more time in the opera house, and in the 1970s HMV treated Boult to a set of Wagner recordings that are reissued here. When they first appeared, they so impressed no less a Wagner authority than Deryck Cooke that they inspired him to write that Boult “reveals himself as a ‘perfect Wagnerite’, and a thrilling one too.” I wasn’t quite as convinced. There are triumphs here, but patchy performances too. Boult’s inexperience in the opera house pit shows in some rather unsuccessful pacing: the Tristan excerpts are too fast, rushing through to the end with little opportunity to relish the sound world, and he gets carried away with the faster sections of Rienzi. However, the Ring excerpts do undoubtedly work, and the Meistersinger preludes exude a lavish sense of scale which would surely have led into lush, architectural performances in the theatre. It’s the quality of the playing that impresses most often, with twinkling Philharmonia strings in the Lohengrin prelude, and fantastic LPO brass in Tannhäuser. The Parsifal excerpts, on the other hand, are well paced but not so well played.
That leads us to the question of orchestras. The band that is used overwhelmingly often in this set is, unsurprisingly, the London Philharmonic, Boult’s musical home and base for much of his recording career. The Philharmonia and New Philharmonia step into the breach for some of the extracts, and even the LSO for the Siegfried Idyll (beautifully played) and Brahms’ Third Symphony, the first of the set that Boult recorded. The sound worlds are fairly similar, though, and, depending on your point of view, that either pays tribute to the strength of Boult’s musical vision or shows how overly uniform was his approach to working with different musicians. In the contents list below, the orchestra is the London Philharmonic, unless I’ve said otherwise.
I found Boult’s Brahms wonderfully convincing. The symphonies bristle with life and show themselves consistently unwilling to be weighed down. No. 1 is particularly strong. It proceeds with majestic dignity, culminating in a splendid finale: the appearance of the horn call in the finale, and its subsequent restatement by the flute, is truly radiant, buoyed up by a shimmering bed of strings, and the coda remains exciting even if it is slower than many would take it. The rich, velvety sound of the slow movement, does credit to the LPO strings, as does the dark brown texture of the Second Symphony. No. 4 is argued with tremendous vigour, the slow movement paradoxically combining almost funereal dignity with lightness of touch, and the unfolding of the finale feels inevitable and unarguable. Only No. 3 feels a little less convincing, though that could be because it was the first of the set. I’ve owned and enjoyed Boult’s recordings of the Serenades for many years, and I love them as much now as I did when I first heard them. Even though many will prefer this delectable music to be played by a chamber orchestra, the LPO sound is remarkably lean and, for me, wholly convincing, not least in the way Boult carries the whole thing off with a smile and a twinkle. Janet Baker’s Alto Rhapsody remains a classic, her voice radiating emotion and setting the cap on string playing of drama and intensity. The overtures and Haydn Variations demonstrate the same air-bound feel of the symphonies with excellent playing and a sparkle in the interpretation, even in the darker moments of the Tragic Overture, but especially in the old-school charm of the Haydn Variations.
No set like this is ever perfect, but for me it succeeds on so many levels that it’s easy to recommend. It succeeds in broadening our understanding of Boult’s conducting vision and, what’s more, it’s available at super-duper bargain price, so even if you’re just curious you can pick it up for a song. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Broadens our understanding of Boult’s conducting vision. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Masterwork Index: Brandenburg concertos ~~ Beethoven symphony 6 ~ Brahms symphonies
Bach, Johann Sebastian
Brandenburg Concerto no.1 in F major, BWV1046 [20:23]
Brandenburg Concerto no.2 in F major, BWV1047 [12:41]
Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major, BVW1048 [11:34]
Brandenburg Concerto no.4 in G major, BWV1049 [15:42]
Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major, BWV1050 [20:18]
Brandenburg Concerto no.6 in B flat major, BWV1051 [16:28]
Beethoven, Ludwig van
Coriolan Overture, op.62 [7:43] (New Philharmonia)
Symphony no.6 in F major, op.68 'Pastoral' [42:09]
The Ruins of Athens, op.113: Overture & Turkish March [5:49] (Philharmonia)
Academic Festival Overture, op.80 [9:46] (with Dame Janet Baker and male voices of the John Alldis Choir)
Alto Rhapsody, op.53 [11:47]
Serenade no.1 in D major, op.11 [38:10]
Serenade no.2 in A major, op.16 [25:38]
Symphony no.1 in C minor, op.68 [45:00]
Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73 [42:57]
Symphony no.3 in F major, op.90 [37:00] (London Symphony Orchestra)
Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98 [39:16]
Tragic Overture, op.81 [13:56]
Variations on a theme by Haydn, op.56a [17:30]
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), K620: Overture [6:50]
Symphony no.35 in D major, K385 'Haffner' [16:30]
Symphony no.41 in C major, K551 'Jupiter' [39:22]
Symphony no.9 in C major, D944 'The Great' [54:14]
Radetzky March, op.228 [2:45]
Suppe, Franz von
Dichter und Bauer (Poet and Peasant) Overture [10:15]
Das Rheingold: Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla [8:44]
Der fliegende Holländer Overture [10:53]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Overture & Prelude to Act 3 [16:29] (New Philharmonia)
Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries [5:21]
Faust Overture [11:30]
Götterdämmerung: Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey [9:14]
Siegfried’s Funeral March [8:16]
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I [8:23] (New Philharmonia)
Prelude to Act III [3:20] (New Philharmonia)
Parsifal: Good Friday Spell [8:46]
Prelude to Act 1 [12:43]
Prelude to Act 3 [5:16]
Transformation music (Act 1) [5:04]
Transformation scene (Act 3) [4:37]
Rienzi: Overture [10:27]
Siegfried: Forest Murmurs [7:35]
Siegfried Idyll, op.103 [16:47] (London Symphony Orchestra)
Tannhäuser: Overture [14:24] (New Philharmonia)
Entrance of the Guests [6:29]
Tristan und Isolde: Preludes to Act 1(New Philharmonia) & Act 3 [18:15]
Italienische Serenade (Italian Serenade) in G major [6:46] (Philharmonia)