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Lord of the Proms - Unique recordings of the great British conductor Sir Adrian Boult
see end of review for details
rec. no dates or venues supplied
DOCUMENTS 600045 [10 CDs: 6:14:39]

Another grab-what-you-can collection from Documents (also known as IntenseMedia in some locations) hampered by exceptionally dull/flawed/non-existent presentation labouring under a meaningless title - Boult was never a Lord and in any case what does “Lord of the Proms” mean? Since most of these performances have been regularly available in other transfers how are they "unique"! This is simply another scavenging operation through out-of-copyright recordings to knock out a super-bargain box of performances linked by the conductor and nothing else.
 
The bulk of the recordings were made in the 1950s for either Nixa or HMV. In most cases the sound is acceptable for its age but there are clear sonic compromises so almost by definition this set will be of interest to the historical/specialist collector rather than recommendable to someone looking to build the proverbial “library” versions. That being said, and having had my spat there are several performances here of real quality - and not always in repertoire that latterly Boult was associated with. For many collectors - myself included - Boult’s famed Indian Summer in the recording studio made his name synonymous with richly recorded versions of central British music of the 20th century. If nothing else, this box shows that Boult was adept at a far wider range of repertoire and was not always the patrician grand old man the late recordings sometimes imply. Before commenting on individual discs a couple of general comments. Except in one case I have not heard other transfers of these often well-known performances so I cannot comment on the comparative technical quality of their current incarnations. Also, Documents offer rather sparse documentation so I have taken recording dates from the Wikipedia Boult discography article. Lastly, playing lengths of these discs is very much a moveable feast ranging from the shamefully short to generous so I will focus on the repertoire offered rather than the duration or often even the (arbitrary) couplings.
 
Discs 1-4 are core Boult repertoire - the major Elgar Symphonic and concerted works. Disc 1 has HMV recordings with the LPO from 1954 and 1956 respectively of The Enigma Variations and all five Pomp and Circumstance Marches. My listening notes have words that were to become something of a recurring trope throughout the set; “forthright, unmannered, direct, unsentimental”. Indeed for anyone who sees Elgar as the High Priest of Edwardian Imperialism and Boult as his musical altar boy this will come as something of a surprise. For myself I love the unforced simplicity of Boult’s approach. This is not to say it lacks subtlety or profound musicianship but instead it is shorn of any kind of extra-musical tub-thumping. For the first time ever the marches struck me as a kind of ‘Suite in March time’. They cover a wide range of moods from fervour-filled to febrile. Boult’s handling of the famed/notorious ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ theme in the first march is a case in point - almost no pulling back of the main - noticeably brisk - tempo allowing the melody to flow and be what it is - a very good tune. Likewise, the Enigma is direct and unfussy with Nimrod gaining an unforced dignity and emotional directness precisely because it is not being burdened down by a sense of “England expects”. Boult’s handling of tempi and their inter-relationships is shown to be masterly. Overall the Enigma is very fluent with few extremes - rarely have the revisiting of themes/friends in the EDU Finale grown so organically out of the preceding pages. The downside is a recording which rather crumbles under pressure and orchestral playing that is scrappier than elsewhere in this box.
 
Boult’s 1970s recordings of the two Elgar Symphonies were once considered unsurpassed - right down to their original sleeves seeming to epitomise a sense of end of Empire. Interesting then to roll back some 27 years from that to Boult’s first traversal in the recording studio in 1950; the liner’s liner say 1949. The sound again suffers from considerable distortion and crumbling at climaxes. Interesting to compare timings too - Boult was always a master of hitting the right tempo for the tricky opening motto/march. Here is a table of both symphonies in the three main recordings:
  
Symphony No.1
1950 - HMV
1968 - Lyrita
1976/7 - EMI
I.Andante nobilmente
17:55
18:27
18:39
II. Allegro moderato
6:55
7:13
7:13
III. Adagio
12:20
10:26
10:36
IV. Lento-allegro
11:37
12:23
12:07

 
Symphony No.2
1956 - Nixa
1968 - Lyrita
1976/7 - EMI
I. Allegro Vivace
16:42
16:30
17:34
II. Larghetto
14:25
13:15
14:13
III. Rondo Presto
8:03
8:25
8:03
IV. Moderato e maestoso
13:08
12:57
13:19

 
Aside from a clear rethink of the Adagio of No.1 and a broadening of both Symphonies’ first movements these timings are far more consistent than received wisdom would have you think. So clearly - and this is part I think of Boult’s greatness - it is down to his subtle control of tempo that can make one performance feel much more direct and urgent whatever the stopwatch may say. I have a fourth Boult recording which was a live BBCSO performance released on a BBC Music Magazine cover disc which is the most dynamic of the lot. Interesting though the 1950 performance here is as a reference it does not displace any of his other studio versions.
 
The Symphony No.2 which accounts for disc No.3 is a different matter. This is a superb version - quite one of the best I know. Fortunately the 1956/Nixa master is in far better condition. Documents go along with the pseudonymous use of The Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra. It is in fact the LPO but presumably wriggling out of contractual obligations elsewhere. Important to remember that Elgar lauded Boult as the saviour of the work; the indifference to the 1911 premiere leading Elgar to remark to W H Reed “they sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs”. It was not until the young Boult revived the work in 1920 that its true stature was appreciated and Elgar could write to Boult “I feel that my reputation in the future is safe in your hands”. Boult made five studio recordings of this symphony. This 1956 disc finds the ideal balance between a ferocious Presto (“"the madness that attends the excess or abuse of passion") and the elegiac Adagio framed by two fluent but superbly paced outer movements. For this performance alone I would happily pay the £10.00 price point for the whole box.
 
Disc 4 holds another treasured old-friend. This is the magnificent Decca-sourced version of the Violin Concerto played by Alfredo Campoli. Boult - as elsewhere in the box - shows himself to be an attentive and self-effacing accompanist; this is very much Campoli’s performance. Even half a century later it remains one of the finest - perhaps not as superhumanly ‘perfect’ as some modern versions but oozing personality and old-fashioned gallantry. The LPO - back as themselves - are on good form. This remains one of my top three recordings balancing an Italianate warmth with some British reserve and an elegant technique - to my ear the best of all worlds. This is the only disc in the box I know from another release/mastering. I have it in the Beulah “Campoli Classics Vol.1”. Here’s a curio others will know the answer to; the Beulah release is clearly a mono disc. The Documents release has a warmer and more present (better) sound and seems to be in some kind of stereo. If it is an electronically reprocessed sound I have to say it has been rather well achieved and now replaces my Beulah disc as the reference version for the Elgar - although the Beulah coupling is a rather wonderful Campoli/Boult Mendelssohn concerto.
 
The Elgar is coupled here with Pablo Casals’ version of the Cello Concerto from 1945. Never having heard this I was expecting a lot more. One is cautious about criticising a musical giant such as Casals but it has to be said that this performance on just about every ground falls down. Casals’ technique labours - has the skittish allegro molto ever sounded so dull. The recording leaves the orchestra muffled and obscured. Elgar’s most lyrical inventions just don’t flow - Casals over-phrases trying to extract weighty meaning from every bar. The slow movement adagio benefits most from Casals’ introspective approach but I doubt I will return to this even for historical reference. For that either May Harrison under Elgar himself or W. H. Squire with Sir Henry Wood strike me as significantly preferable at every turn.
 
Discs 5 and 6 complete the brief survey of British music with other stalwarts of the Boult discography. Boult conducts the LSO in the fiery premiere on disc of Vaughan Williams’ 6th Symphony. I’m sorry that Documents chose to use the version where the original edition of the scherzo was re-recorded after the composer had second thoughts. There are not huge differences between the first and second versions but from a curiosity/historical value perspective the earlier one would have had extra value. Boult went on to record two complete cycles of the RVW Symphonies for Decca/Everest in the 1950s and EMI in the 1960s/1970s. This first version of No.6 has a raw power and aggression that - as with the Elgar - dismantles any notion that its composer was just a cow-pat-pastoralist. Here timings do tell a story:
  
Symphony No.6 1949 - HMV 1954 - Decca 1967 - HMV
I.Allegro 7:21 8:20 8:16
II. Moderato 9:31 10:15 9:31
III. Scherzo - allegro vivace 6:12 7:01 6:59
IV. Epilogue moderato 10:58 13:16 11:19

For sure the LSO in 1949 were not the prettiest - indeed at times its pretty rough and the sound is crude although without the distortion that afflicts the earlier Elgar discs. A powerhouse performance that anyone who cares about this composer should know. The Lark Ascending makes for a rather mean coupling in time terms but after the ‘hell and fury’ of the symphony it makes a perfect foil. Nothing will ever supplant Boult’s other recording with Hugh Bean in my affections but I had forgotten just how good this performance from Jean Pougnet was. Superbly poised and elegant with just the right amount of fantasy and freedom to make this one of the most sublimely rhapsodic works of all. Another disc to treasure.
 
Boult proved to be musical midwife to many great works. One of the first - a huge triumph for a young conductor of just 29 - was the premiere of Holst’s The Planets. Boult’s 1945 recording with the BBCSO - his first of five studio performances is disc 6. As a work this suffers most of the entire set from a murky recording - not that the engineering is much worse than other discs here but because the piece itself relies more on orchestral colour than others. Again my listening notes mention forthright - unfussy - direct. Time for another table!
 
The Planets
1945 - BBC SO
HMV
1961 - Vienna Opera O
Westminster
1978 - LPO
EMI
I. Mars
7:01
7:17
8:02
II. Venus
7:54
8:35
7:25
III. Mercury
3:44
4:04
3:48
IV. Jupiter
7:45
8:26
7:58
V. Saturn
8:09
8:20
8:22
VI. Uranus
5:45
6:25
6:26
VII. Neptune
6:23
6:27
6:25

Overall, consistency is the key and interesting that the movements that make least impact in 1945 are those that have broadened most, with added implacable weight in the case of Mars and inexorable menace in the case of Saturn, by 1978. The latter, in the earlier version sounds more like Eric Coates in near good humour than had ever occurred to me before. The benefits are a Jupiter where - as with Land of Hope & Glory - the ‘big’ tune is not weighed down by the expectations - sporting and otherwise - of a nation. The fleet scoring of Mercury suffers, creating a quite different effect from the virtually same-timed 1978 performance. Ultimately, in interpretative terms a mixed bag and one for the specialist collector only given that Boult’s final version from 1978 is such a fine recording in every respect - still a leading version 35 years on.
 
Discs 7-9 feature Boult as accompanist in mainstream repertoire. Here, his all-round musicianship comes to the fore and his Germanic training with Arthur Nikisch is demonstrated.
 
Disc 7 has another of the set’s highlights. An absolutely stunning live recording from 1947 of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.1 featuring Yehudi Menuhin. By the tail-end of Menuhin’s career in the 1970s and beyond, any recording was greeted with a degree of circumspection given his technical fallibility by that time. This performance - poor transfer and all - shows what a masterly player he was in his pomp. Curiously the Menhuin website at lists this performance (given on the 30 October 1947) as being of the 2nd Concerto. In this instance Documents is right - it is No.1 for sure. As with the Elgar violin concerto, this is very much the soloist’s show - after all Paganini wrote orchestral parts that are little more than a framework for the fiddler’s pyrotechnics. As such, Boult is a careful accompanist - there is little more that he could do, but it remains a stunning performance. The coupling is Schumann 4. This is part of the complete cycle Boult recorded for Pye Nixa in 1957. Again it is a forthright unfussy performance with some muscular brass playing and little if any indulgence. That being said, there are no particular insights that mark it out for special attention in a crowded marketplace.
 
Disc 8 proves to be another gem - two late Mozart piano concertos with Annie Fischer dating from 1959 originally on Columbia. Both soloist and conductor are as one delivering wonderfully unmannered and joyful accounts of these two great concertos - again setting the record straight, if anyone was in doubt, that Mozart was played with a classical directness and purity of utterance long before the term “Historically Informed Practice” was even coined. These are performances that still exist in the EMI catalogue for around the £6.00 mark so as part of this set they represent a true bargain. As before, I cannot compare transfers or mastering but suffice to say that the Documents disc is very acceptable - easily one of the best in this box.
 
Disc 9 encapsulates the label’s shoddy planning and packaging. For no known possible reason a Chopin piano concerto sits alongside a brief piece of Sibelius incidental music. The total running time struggles past 43 minutes. Rather by luck than any great strategic design both performances are valuable: once again because neither composer would otherwise feature prominently in a Boult discography; indeed this would appear to be the only time for both pieces. Friedrich Gulda’s approach to Chopin - I’m no expert, I have to say - is refreshingly unmannered and both he and Boult provide a performance that is poetic without being overly precious. Not that the liner makes this clear, but this would seem to be Balakirev’s edition of the Chopin concerto. The score for this edition can be viewed on IMSLP. As far as I can tell the orchestral part has been rescored by the Russian composer - this would seem to be a rarity and as such worth consideration in a performance as sympathetic as this. Although this is one of the earlier recordings in the set it happens to be one of the best with a perfectly acceptable soloist/orchestra balance with the orchestra having really very good weight and balance. One imagines this is again due to the original Decca source - a performance I will be very happy to revisit. Certainly it is superior - sonically - to the Pye/Nixa sourced Sibelius. Again, this is a composer who features very little in the Boult discography - this performance being part of a two disc group of the popular tone poems recorded in 1957. Certainly this is an exciting and craggy near brusque interpretation - reading reviews of the other original couplings Boult would appear to have been a powerful interpreter - all the more surprising that so few of the major works appear at all in his discography.
 
Disc 10 completes the set and is another hidden gem. Busoni's incomplete opera Doktor Faust is a wonderful work. Boult gave the UK premiere in the thirties and this was its second UK outing - a concert performance at London's Royal Festival Hall in November 1959. Boult collaborated with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to produce this 75 minute digest of the complete score. The glory of the set is Fischer-Dieskau’s utterly committed but very beautiful singing - he really is in his youthful prime here. Add to that support from a top-rank British cast (plus Australian John Cameron) and Boult at his most astute and sympathetic and you have a memorable disc. This same recording has been released on the LPO's "own" label for around £10.00. The downside with this release is the lack of any kind of libretto or synopsis. Then again the LPO's own incarnation lacks the libretto too.
 
Very much a mixed bag, then. However, as before with my experience of sets from this source, it serves the collector to look beyond the bargain basement, pile-it-high approach that is to the detriment of the performances collected therein. Personally I would happily pay a couple of pounds more for a liner-note and librettos plus some sense that someone actually cared about the quality of the presentation. For the music alone there is much to appeal here.
 
Nick Barnard 

Masterwork Index Vaughan Williams review index
Elgar Enigma Variations Elgar Symphony 1 Elgar Symphony 2
Elgar Cello Concerto Elgar Violin Concerto Holst The Planets
Mozart Piano Concerto 20 Mozart Piano Concerto 23 Schumann Symphony 4


Details
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Pomp and Circumstance Marches Op.39 Nos.1-5 [27:29]
Enigma Variations Op.36 [31:03]
Symphony No.1 in A flat major Op.55 [48:50]
Symphony No.2 in E flat major Op.63 [52:20]
Violin Concerto in B minor Op.61 [45:34]
Alfredo Campoli (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85 [27:34]
Pablo Casals (cello) BBC Symphony Orchestra

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No.6 in E minor [34:02]
London Symphony Orchestra
The Lark Ascending [13:26]
Jean Pougnet (violin) London Philharmonic Orchestra

Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets Op.32 [46:42]
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Violin Concerto No.1 in D major [37:17]
Yehudin Menuhin (violin) BBC Symphony Orchestra

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No.4 in D minor Op.120 [28:28]
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor K.466
Piano Concerto No.23 in A major K.488
Annie Fischer (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra

Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor Op.11
Friedrich Gulda (piano) London Philharmonic Orchestra

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Tempest - Prelude [6:10]
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Ferrucio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Doktor Faust - extended excerpts [73:54]
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Ian Wallace (bass-baritone), Heather Harper (soprano), John Cameron (bass)
London Philharmonic Choir , Chorus of the Royal Academy of Music
London Philharmonic Orchestra


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