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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No 2 in E flat, Op.63 [50.11] Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Tannhäuser: Overtureand Venusberg Music [‘Paris’ version] [23.34]*
BBC Chorus* and Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. Royal Albert Hall, London, 24 July 1977: Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London, 8 December 1968* ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5106 [73.45]
During my period at university in London during the late 1960s and early 1970s I attended a good many concerts conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. I found some difficulty in recognising in him the old fuddy-duddy which had been conjured by Beecham’s description of him first thing in the morning as “reeking of Horlicks”. On the contrary, I found him to be a maddeningly inconsistent conductor, with both strengths and weaknesses in unexpected directions. He gave one of the best and most thrilling performances I have ever heard of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and then gave a rendition of a heavily cut Vaughan Williams Pilgrim’s Progress which left a decidedly lacklustre impression; his recording released a year later, with the cuts restored and some changes in cast, was quite another matter. He could also be surprisingly wrong-headed, as witnessed by the finale of his EMI recording of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony with its wilful manipulations of speed.
This disc, containing two Boult recordings appearing for the first time on CD, shows Boult in both veins, and not at all the expected ones. He had recorded Elgar’s Second Symphony several times before, and this was his very last performance of a piece that clearly meant very much to him. That said, it has a number of very serious problems. In the first place, the recording from a BBC Prom leaves quite a lot to be desired. Quite apart from the muddy acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, there is evidence of knob-twiddling and the use of limiters by clearly panic-stricken engineers. These severely reduce the impact of the many saturated orchestral climaxes. In the second place, the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1977 was no longer the body from which Boult had been forced to retire 27 years earlier. In the intervening years Pierre Boulez had sought to turn the orchestra into a major specialist in modern music. The results are all too clear in the lack of romantic body in the string section. They play the notes with clarity and precision, but there is no warmth in the sound, and this lack in Elgar is serious. Nor was Boult in his advanced years able always to obtain exact precision of ensemble. There are many points at which there is a slight sense of ‘swimminess’ which is not solely attributable to the Albert Hall resonance.
Of Boult’s earlier recordings that by EMI made some four years before this Proms performance is clearly the best. His Lyrita set of the symphonies suffered from the insistence that Boult, contrary to his usual performance practice, should adopt what was then regarded as the ‘modern’ procedure of grouping all the violins to the left of the stage. The recorded sound on the previous readings - the earliest produced for 78s - cannot begin to do justice to Elgar’s intricate scoring. In the slow movement here Boult takes an unexpectedly fast speed - by comparison with Barbirolli, to take but one example. It seems positively nippy - which does nothing for the solemnity of Elgar’s most beautiful and heartfelt outpouring. This is particularly felt in the oboe solo of lamentation at 7.00, which can be heartbreaking but here sounds little more than decorative. The texture is dominated by the brass and lower string melody, and the swooping downward arpeggiation from the violins is almost totally obliterated. This movement seems to me to illustrate Boult at his most wilfully wrong-headed. Possibly he had been listening to Elgar’s own recording on 78s - constrained perhaps by the lengths of the disc sides, although his metronome marking is surprisingly rapid - or Solti’s imitation of it. However, the EMI recording of this movement is immeasurably superior at a full two minutes longer. Elgar’s metronome markings are hardly to be taken as gospel, as is witnessed by his conducting practice in any number of his own recordings.
By contrast Boult takes a quite relaxed approach to the scherzo third movement. Nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to interpret this movement as a prophecy, an innocuous Edwardian house-party interrupted by a military juggernaut which proceeds to rain down shells onto the terrified guests. That is certainly the impression conveyed by conductors such as Barbirolli, Solti and Elgar himself. Here Boult’s party is hardly inconvenienced, and even the crescendo of the insistent percussion triplets sounds triumphant rather than ominous. That is certainly a valid way of looking at the music, but something seems to be missing.
The finale, given here it seems without the added organ pedal that Elgar recommended to reinforce the climax - or else it is swallowed by the BBC’s limiters - is given a sturdy reading. Once again however the balances in the orchestra leave something to be desired with the violin lines all too often half-swamped by the wind.
It is valuable to hear Boult’s final thoughts on the symphony, but it is perhaps not as surprising as it might be to find that this performance has never previously been released on CD.
In his later Indian summer in the studio, Boult recorded three LPs for EMI containing orchestral music by Wagner. Surprisingly these selections omitted the Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser. This studio recording of the Overture and Venusberg Music - run together with the end of the Overture omitted, as in Wagner’s later revision - makes one wonder why. Here, nine years before the performance of the Elgar, we find Boult firing on all cylinders. The engineers are able to give the strings more presence, with the violin solo in the central section of the truncated Overture (played by Eli Goren?) beautifully poised and relaxed. This is the sort of Boult performance that I remember from his Firebird Suite, full of quite unexpected erotic passion and excitement. He is also given a chorus to sing the distant song of the Sirens, nicely treated here by the engineers.
For the Wagner recording, then, this Boult disc is uniquely valuable, and should commend itself not only to Boult fans. On the other hand, the reading and recording of the Second Symphony is oddly frustrating. Those wanting to hear Boult in this music which he understood so well will be better served by his 1976 EMI studio recording; this appears only to be currently available as part of the 19-disc box of Boult’s Elgar. Otherwise only the 1944 and 1956 recordings are listed on Archiv, although copies can doubtless be obtained elsewhere; second-hand copies of the single EMI disc are shown as available from Amazon. New ones from the same source are ridiculously expensive and in limited supply.