A recent review
by Paul Corfield Godfrey of a recording of a 1961 public performance by Jascha Horenstein of Mahler’s Third Symphony occasioned a correspondence
on our Message Board in which Christopher Howell pointed out that the British première of the work had been given in 1947 by BBC forces conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. That performance has been available on CD for some time – since 2008, in fact - but Christopher was quite right to say that the release has never been reviewed on MusicWeb International, almost certainly because we were not sent a copy to review. I bought the set when it first came out and as the performance preserved is both a good one and an important event in itself I thought the omission ought to be rectified.
Some background is in order so that this Boult performance can be set in context and for this I shall draw on Jon Tolansky’s characteristically excellent note accompanying the discs. From that source too we learn the rather remarkable story of how the recording came to be preserved. The BBC decided to broadcast all the Mahler symphonies in 1947/8. This was achieved through a variety of means: at least one symphony, the Ninth, was heard in a commercial recording – Bruno Walter’s famous 1938 recording; for the Sixth a Hamburg Radio performance by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt was used. It’s not entirely clear if all the remaining symphonies were broadcast live from UK performances but Boult, who was still the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony at this time, certainly led accounts of the Fifth, Seventh and Eighth as well as the present reading of the Third. This was pretty adventurous programming by the BBC since at that time Mahler’s music was by no means the box-office ‘draw’ that it has become more recently. The Third was broadcast from the Maida Vale studios with Kathleen Ferrier as the contralto soloist and with unnamed choral forces in the fifth movement.
The fact that we can hear this recording at all is a remarkable story in itself. The BBC didn’t preserve the performance themselves but, as Tolansky explains, a musicologist, Edward Agate, made off-air recordings onto acetate discs of the broadcasts of all the Mahler performances ‘that were concert or live studio performances.’ He recorded many other broadcasts besides these.Years later, and quite by chance, Tolansky came upon a pile of some 200 such discs in a Manchester record shop and, having identified what they were, scooped the lot. Thank goodness he did, for otherwise the discs might have come to an ignominious end on a rubbish tip. This discovery was one of the factors that led to the foundation of the Music Performance Research Centre, now Music Preserved
, to which Tolansky donated his Manchester treasure trove. This is the source from which Paul Baily has transferred this Boult performance to disc.
The present catalogue is full of splendid performances of this symphony and it’s very hard for us to imagine what it must have been like for a British radio audience to experience this symphony in 1947: most would have been hearing it for the very first time for performances were pretty rare and there was no commercial recording. However, I think it’s fair to say that the listeners had a first class introduction to the work through Boult’s performance. There are a few orchestral fluffs – though nothing major – but overall the BBC Symphony Orchestra acquits itself remarkably well. One must remember that the music would have been completely new to the orchestra and the quality of the performance shows how thoroughly Boult must have prepared them.
Even more impressive is Boult’s interpretation. It may lack the swagger of Bernstein’s tremendous 1961 New York recording (review
) and may not quite match the penetration and dramatic thrust of Horenstein’s 1970 Unicorn recording (review
). However, Boult’s interpretation catches the spirit of the music pretty consistently and he rarely puts a foot wrong. Indeed, at only one point in the whole work am I uncomfortable: in the third movement he takes the passages between the posthorn interludes very briskly – too briskly for my taste.
Boult’s handling of the vast first movement is very persuasive. His pacing is fairly steady but very convincing: his choice of tempi is much more satisfactory than the more cautious selections on another pioneering performance by Charles Adler (review
). The important trombone solo sounds rather stentorian but I think this is due to the recording rather than the player’s style. Boult also evidences a keen ear for detail and it’s clear that he really understands this score – and bear in mind that the performance tradition of this symphony was by no means as established in 1947 as is the case today. The second movement is graceful; Boult displays a lightness of touch and obtains pointed and spirited playing. I’ve mentioned my reservation about the third movement but that concerns, effectively, the second half of the movement whereas I like the treatment of the opening pages, which is nimble. I suspect the posthorn music is played on a trumpet. It doesn’t sound as if the player was placed at any distance and his closeness and the surface noise rather robs the music of magic.
The fourth movement – and the fifth, for that matter – is graced by the presence of Kathleen Ferrier. I’m not aware that there’s another recording of her in this symphony, which adds extra value to this release. Her lustrous tone is heard to excellent advantage and though the BBCSO aren’t always entirely unanimous in the exposed chording she and Boult combine to put across the spirit of the music most effectively. Ferrier sings very well indeed, investing the music with great intensity. The sound briefly goes in and out of focus at around 4:00 and the surface noise is something of a trial at times but the dedication of the performance comes through nonetheless.
The fifth movement is much less successful, I fear. The ladies chorus sings well enough, though their tone sounds a bit matronly compared to the fresher, lighter tone to which we’re accustomed nowadays. The weakness – and it’s a considerable one – is the boys’ choir. Their ‘Bim-bam’ at the start is listless and timid almost to the point of inaudibility and things don’t improve. Frankly, I’ve never heard a worse attempt at this music – Adler’s boys are much more incisive. It’s a great shame. However, the performance gets fully back on track in the long adagio
finale which Boult shapes and paces most persuasively. This music requires patience and discipline and Boult is ideally suited to it. Though they must have been tired by this point the BBC players do very well here and this is a very convincing account of the movement.
One or two reservations aside, this Maher Third is a considerable achievement and one that reflects great credit on Boult. We don’t think of him as a Mahler conductor but Tolansky makes clear that he was by no means unfamiliar with Mahler’s music and this pioneering performance can hold its head up high against the illustrious opposition that has come into the catalogue since. It’s an important document both in the performance history of the symphony and in terms of our appreciation of this fine conductor and it’s very good that Testament have been able to issue it.
The performance of Kindertotenlieder
, previously unissued, I think, was given in the same Amsterdam concert at which Klemperer led a performance of the ‘Resurrection
’ Symphony that has been issued several times on disc, most recently by Pristine Audio (review
). I don’t know from what source material was Paul Baily has transferred the performance of the songs for Testament but I doubt it’s the same source that Andrew Rose used for Pristine and quite possibly different transfer techniques were used. Pristine’s transfer of the symphony offers cleaner, clearer sound and their transfer doesn’t suffer from surface noise to the extent that the Testament transfer of the songs does.
Ferrier is in the foreground of the aural picture – as you might expect there’s a better balance with the orchestra in her 1949 EMI studio recording with Bruno Walter and the VPO (review
) – but you can still hear plenty of the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s contribution. There’s appreciably more surface noise on these recordings than was the case with the symphony but Ferrier’s intense, deeply involving singing comes across very well and her many admirers – and Mahler devotees – will be glad to have this live account to compare and contrast with her Walter-led recording.
To complete this package Testament includes a short radio interview that Ferrier gave to CBC while on a visit to Canada in 1950. She indulges in a little gentle self-mockery, alleging that she pronounced French with a Lancashire accent but, in fact, her speaking voice is beautifully modulated. It’s not a particularly revealing interview and, frankly, Ferrier sounds infinitely more at ease than her interlocutor; but it’s a welcome bonus.
When listening to both musical performances some allowances have to be made for the sound; that’s inevitable. However, I found that my ears quickly adjusted and sonic considerations should not deter anyone from acquiring this very valuable set. The symphony is the main attraction here, I think. This is a notable part of the evolution of the work’s performance history and the convincing and faithful performance is a significant addition to the Boult discography. I wonder if Music Preserved has in its collection any more of Boult’s contributions to the 1947/8 BBC Mahler cycle. If so it would be most interesting if they could be released commercially.
Masterwork Index: Mahler