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Sir Adrian Boult (conductor)
The NBC Recordings
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody (1912) [9:37]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op 92 (1812) [38:50]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, 'Enigma', Op 36 (1900) [30:21]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
A Fugal Concerto, Op 40, No 2 (1923) [9:03]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Viola Concerto (1929) [23:27]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1934) [33:55]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
El Salón México (1936) [10:30]
William Primrose (viola)
NBC Symphony Orchestra
rec. live broadcast recordings NBC, May 1938
PRISTINE PASC626 [2 CDs: 160:41]

It was natural, after Toscanini’s highly successful performances and recordings with Adrian Boult’s BBC Symphony Orchestra, for the Italian conductor to invite Boult to direct two Saturday night concerts in New York with his own NBC forces. On 14 May 1938 Boult duly conducted works by Busoni (A Comedy Overture – available as a bonus mp3 download track when purchasing direct from Pristine Audio but not on the CD twofer itself as there was not enough room), Beethoven, Walton and Copland. A week later the programme was Holst, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Elgar. Pristine’s running order mixes between the two concerts and so replicates neither. In this way as much of the music could be contained in two capacious discs, transferred via XR remastering.

The first disc begins with one of his calling cards, Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, which he had heard when Nikisch premiered it (badly, by all accounts) and which Boult had recorded, slightly cut, at only his second session back in 1920 with the British Symphony Orchestra and was soon to re-record with the Hallé in wartime. The deft portamenti are very noticeable in this NBC reading as is the very present percussion, brass and well-balanced winds – to what extent these qualities are present on the NBC disc and to what degree they have been magnified by XR work I can’t say. This NBC reading is rather slower than the tempo Boult generally took (his Lyrita LP took the same tempo as the 1942 Hallé; 8:35) but it is exceptionally expressive, and the dynamics are very audible, and the NBC would presumably have had limited, if any, familiarity with the work.

Boult should have made a Beethoven symphony cycle but at least there are scattered examples throughout his long career, both studio – principally Vanguard – and live. In his autobiography he acknowledged taking on the Seventh with Toscanini’s own orchestra as ‘a sin of my youth’. Presumably he’d have heard the Italian’s famous performances of the Seventh in London – though the 1935 recording wasn’t issued at the time, having to wait for LP release decades later – and in point of fact whilst he may have downplayed his effectiveness in it, he acquits himself well. Boult takes the repeats in the Presto and the Finale and generates rhythmic punch and drive, strong and tensile, though with sufficient flexibility. The final work in the first disc is the Enigma Variations, a work he had recorded with the BBC in 1936 following an august line of previous 78 sets from the composer himself (twice), Henry Wood, and Hamilton Harty. Boult is lean and linear but there are once again more portamenti from the NBC than one would have expected and it’s a feature that he was clearly at pains to impart. You can hear something similar in the live Concertgebouw performance he gave in 1940, preserved by the BBC though not in as glowing or as bright sound as this NBC performance. Some elements of the NBC (and Dutch) performance still strike me as less impressive – strangely Nimrod and the finale, E.D.U, are more eruptive than I’d recalled from this period of his musical life.

Disc two opens with Holst’s genial A Fugal Concerto. No soloists are mentioned so I will take a stab at oboist Robert Bloom and flautist John Wummer (the flautist is certainly not Carmine Coppola, father of Francis Ford Coppola, who wasn’t playing with the orchestra by this point). This is a lovely, lively, affectionate and unpretentious little work and is given a suitably warm reading. Next up is the American première of Walton’s Viola Concerto given by the NBC’s co-principal with Carlton Cooley, the Scotsman William Primrose. The first recording had already been made by Frederick Riddle in 1937 with Walton conducting, but Primrose was to make two commercial sets, the first with the composer in 1946 and later with Sargent. Boult never recorded it in the studio which makes this New York premiere all the more rewarding. The performance scores very highly because of its accumulation of rhythmic bite and the soloist’s tonal lustre, still recognisably the ‘London String Quartet’ Primrose before his tone tightened somewhat during his Heifetz and Piatigorsky days and lost a degree of its bloom. The eloquence of the concerto’s melancholic close is beautifully realised by both men; a major achievement.

Following this is Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony, a work Boult premiered but the composer first recorded with Boult’s orchestra in 1937 – a good year for British premières on disc. The American première had been given by Rodziński in Cleveland and it was a work Stokowski was soon to take up, performing it with the NBC in 1943 (it can be found on Cala). No one can match the composer for sheer pulsating speed in this work but Boult, who was to record it in the studio in 1955 and 1968, was not one for caution either. His habitual care for balancing brings expected rewards and he delivers a mightily impressive account backed by the NBC’s sectional excellence. Their corporate string tone wasn’t as warm as the BBC Symphony’s of the time, but they are a fine conduit for VW’s tensile vehemence.

The final piece is Copland’s El Salón México, composed in 1936, premièred the following year at a concert directed by Carlos Chávez, but heard here in apparently its North American premiere. This lively reading is full of flair – often a quality overlooked in a conductor who many years later gleefully recorded Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, Sousa favourites, Eric Coates and even Richard Rodgers’ Guadalcanal March.

This is a vital and valuable twofer that can be heard alongside Somm’s restorations of Elgar repertoire in NBC performances from just a few years later (review ~ review). With punchy XR sonics and early examples of Boult’s way with many of these works, this is an invaluable release for admirers of the conductor.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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