Richard Blackford

75th Birthday Tribute

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884/5) [37:55]
Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op.90 Italian (1833) [26:10]
BBC Symphony Orchestra (Brahms), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. live, 8 August 1975 (Brahms), 29 July 1972, Royal Albert Hall
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5093 [64:12]

Sir Adrian Boult’s recorded legacy is having a well-deserved revival at the moment. EMI (now Warner Classics) have released box sets of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and two Icon compilations. ICA have also contributed with live 1970s recordings of both Elgar Symphonies and all bar Number Two of Brahms. Here we have two Fourth Symphonies - one by Brahms and the other by Mendelssohn - performed when Boult was 83 and 86; not that one would notice. 

Brahms 4 is one of my favourite pieces and I suspect it was also one for which Sir Adrian had a great deal of affection. He made two commercial recordings for LP, in 1954, and a stereo version in 1972 which has fairly recently resurfaced on From Bach to Wagner. The latter was very well received by my colleague Simon Thompson. To my ears the present version is splendid. The Brahms Symphony was composed only a few years before Boult was born. What we hear shows a lifetime’s experience and love of this composer. The second movement has such dignity, never cloying and conveying the melancholy of the ageing composer. The sound engineers have done well in the Allegro giocoso third movement; it’s just a slight shame that they capture the coughers between movements. The final movement conveys a mixture of moods - triumph and ultimately disaster - but Sir Adrian has the full measure of the music and the effect is deeply moving. He first conducted the BBCSO in 1930, when it was formed; here, 45 years later, they respond magnificently, albeit with the odd, allowable wobble. The Proms audience is wildly and justly enthusiastic at the end; I have no problem, here, with this being retained.

Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony is less associated with Sir Adrian although I believe he recorded it twice. Certainly there’s a 1950s Boult recording on Naxos Music Library. The Mendelssohn is slightly, only very slightly, less rewarding than the Brahms. At times Boult takes time to warm up, almost as if age, or heat - it was late July - was causing some fatigue. The first two movements are splendid and the pace just right. If someone was hearing this marvellous piece for the first time they could not go wrong here. The audience then has a coughing frenzy and the first two or three minutes of the third movement seem rather earth bound although the power returns forcefully in the second part. The finale is taken with great gusto and made me wonder if Bizet had heard this piece when he wrote his lovely Symphony in C in 1855. The RPO were not an orchestra I associate with Sir Adrian but they play very well here.
These are two splendid performances which I’m so very pleased have been released. It must be hoped that ICA continue their excellent work and release more of Sir Adrian from the archives.  

David R Dunsmore 

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 4 ~~ Mendelssohn symphony 4

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