Sir Adrian Boult. A Musical Legacy
Patricia Bishop (piano - Dohnányi); Christopher Bunting (cello - Kol Nidrei);
Frederick Harvey (baritone - Stanford); Hugh McLean (organ - Arnold); Jean
Pougnet (violin - The Lark Ascending); Gwenneth Pryor (piano - Caprice-Valse,
Croydon Philharmonic Society (Stanford)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA LPO-0119 [5 CDs 399:28]
This boxed set of CDs gives us a generous and varied survey of aspects of the work Sir Adrian Boult did with the LPO. The collection includes a number of commercial studio-made recordings as well as several live performances taken from BBC broadcasts. The compilation was initially released as a set of five download albums; in gathering those albums together for CD release, the LPO have added another nine items. These are marked with an asterisk in the track list below.
The LPO has had a number of distinguished Principal Conductors since the Second World War, including Bernard Haitink, Vladimir Jurowski, Kurt Masur, Sir Georg Solti and Klaus Tennstedt. However, Sir Adrian Boult deserves a special place of honour amongst such company. He took on the role in 1950 after Eduard van Beinum’s tenure (1947-50) was cut short by the conductor’s poor health. The orchestra was still recovering from the effects of the war but Boult, a highly experienced and effective orchestra trainer, worked wonders with it. During his tenure (1950-57) he laid very solid foundations indeed on which the LPO has been able to build in the following six decades.
As will be seen, the five CDs have been programmed thematically. The first disc finds Boult on very familiar territory indeed in the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The performance of the Elgar symphony was set down for EMI at Abbey Road, Studio 1 in September 1949 and it has the distinction of being the first recording that Boult and the LPO made together. It predates his appointment as principal conductor by a few months. The performance is distinguished and shows Boult’s complete understanding of the score. Especially admirable is the unforced eloquence and dignity that he brings to the great Adagio. What a fine symphony this is – and what a master of it Boult was!
The Vaughan Williams Sixth is part of his cycle of the first eight symphonies that he set down for Decca in the 1950s and which has long been part of my own collection. My colleague William Hedley admired this performance some years ago and I agree with him. Boult’s handing of the score is completely convincing, nowhere more so than in the second movement, where his reading is steady and implacable. He displays expert control in the build-up to the series of towering climaxes. Comparable control is evident in the glacial fourth movement, where Boult ensures that the playing is drained of colour and emotion.
On the second disc we encounter Boult in Beethoven. His 1957 commercial recording of the
‘Eroica’ was discussed in detail some years ago by my colleague Christopher Howell (review). The first movement is paced quite steadily but still has the energy that the music needs. The exposition repeat is not made, which is a pity. I’d not heard this performance before and the reading of the
Marcia funčbre made me sit up – in a good way. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Boult takes the music relatively swiftly – you might regard it as
Andante rather than the marked Adagio assai. I don’t think, though, that the pace harms the music in any way; in fact, the performance has a stoic dignity that I rather like. In the finale, some may feel that Boult is a bit on the steady side in the quicker passages. What especially caught my attention, though, was the conducting of the slow variations (from 7:01). This extended episode is just right, I feel, and with the spotlight on them, the LPO’s woodwinds and horns really deliver. Boult’s
‘Eroica’ is well worth your attention.
The cellist Christopher Bunting (1924-2005) is the soloist in Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. He’s impressive: his playing is eloquent and I like the warm tone he produces. Boult is, predictably, a super accompanist. Up to now all the recordings we’ve heard have been studio productions. However, the performance of Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Song is a live BBC recording from a concert given in the Royal Festival Hall in November 1955. The juxtaposition immediately after the 1967 Bruch recording is a little unfortunate because the 1955 sound is no match for the later studio sound. However, the performance is very enjoyable. I learned from the booklet that the soloist, Patricia Bishop, was just 22 when she gave this performance; it was her Festival Hall debut and the audience included Queen Elizabeth II. It must have given Patricia Bishop great confidence to have Sir Adrian on the rostrum for such an occasion. I love these witty and inventive variations: Bishop and Boult do them very well indeed. We shall be returning to this concert later in the set.
The third disc shows Boult in a very different light, conducting ballet music. The opening track, Falla’s
‘Ritual Fire Dance’ comes off very well. Boult directs an exciting and strongly rhythmic performance and the 1967 stereo recording sounds well. The Delibes selections all come from the same studio sessions in 1955. I must be honest and say that this music has little appeal to me but Boult makes a good job of it. The Sylvia Ballet Suite includes the famous ‘Pizzicati’ movement, nicely done, and there’s a spirited rendition of the ‘Cortčge de Bacchus’. In the Coppélia Suite the ‘Mazurka’ has a fine spring in its step while the concluding ‘Valse’ is elegantly played.
There’s a good performance of Saint-Saëns’ celebrated Danse Macabre and then we find Boult back on familiar ground with the ballet music from Holst’s The Perfect Fool. There’s a bit of a mismatch in the documentation here. In his excellent essay Andrew Neill asserts that the recording we hear is Sir Adrian’s second commercial one, dating from 1961. However, in the small print of the track listing we’re told it's Boult’s earlier version, set down in 1954; on the evidence of my ears, I’m pretty confident that the latter is correct. Boult makes a fine job of Holst’s music. In particular, there’s a refined rendition of the ‘Dance of the Spirits of Water’. The concluding ‘Dance of the Spirits of Fire’ is strongly projected. The disc concludes with something of an anomaly in Boult’s discography: his only recording of music by Stravinsky. Circus Polka comes in a studio version set down in 1967. He does it well, securing incisive playing from the LPO.
The fourth disc contains another piece which one would not usually associate with Sir Adrian: Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. This, too, was recorded in 1967; was it done at the same sessions as the Stravinsky, I wonder? It may be a surprising choice for Boult but the performance is convincing. It’s true that the upbeat outer sections might have benefitted from a slightly quicker speed, but against that one must record that Boult allows the orchestra its head throughout the performance and the colour and rhythmic vitality that Gershwin’s piece needs are present. I enjoyed this very much. I also liked Walton’s Portsmouth Point. Again, one has heard other conductors inject even more vim into the music but Boult’s performance has much to commend it: it’s spirited and incisive. There is no need for any hesitation over the performance of The Lark Ascending. This commercial recording was made in 1952 and featured Jean Pougnet, the LPO’s leader at the time. It’s by no means new to CD, of course, and I have the transfer about which Neil Horner enthused back in 2002. Pougnet is an excellent, poetic soloist – and his playing is well captured in this recording. He could have no better collaborator than Boult.
The main offering on this fourth disc is the 1955 studio recording of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Again, one might not immediately think of Sir Adrian in association with this composer, but this is a piece and recording that fully justifies its place on the CD entitled The Versatile Conductor. The performance is admirable. In the opening Andante tranquillo Boult gradually builds the initial suppressed tension into great intensity later in the movement. There’s plenty of drive in the Allegro movement that follows and then Boult leads a very tense account of the Adagio; here, the unique ambience of Bartók’s textures is well achieved. In the concluding Allegro molto there’s plenty of pace and energy. This performance is a success.
The final disc is entitled Champion of British Music and much of it stems from the 1955 Festival Hall concert which we first encountered on Disc
Two. All the other items from that concert that are included here are by British composers. Importantly, we get two works which, to the best of my knowledge, Boult never recorded commercially. One of these is Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet. These are songs for baritone solo, SATB choir and orchestra. Frederick Harvey (1908-1967) is the clear, stalwart soloist; he’s well suited to these songs. The choir is the Croydon Philharmonic Society and their contributions are satisfactory though their tuning is a bit fallible in the exposed third song, ‘The Middle Watch’. Unfortunately, the set is not performed complete: the last song ‘Fare well’ was omitted. I don’t know why this was done – clearly, it wasn’t performed on the night because the audience applauds at the end of the barnstorming ‘The Little Admiral’. I’m surprised at Boult sanctioning the omission of what I consider to be the finest of the songs; it’s a great pity.
The other work new, I believe, to the Boult discography is Malcolm Arnold’s Organ Concerto. This was written in 1954 and the booklet offers slightly conflicting information: the present performance was either its premiere or the first broadcast performance. The soloist is the Canadian organist, then based in Britain, Hugh McLean (1930-2017). It’s a short but most attractive work. The first of its three movements is extrovert, even celebratory. The slow movement finds Arnold in his most winningly lyrical vein. Unfortunately, the audience contains a strong detachment from what one of my Seen and Heard colleagues has dubbed the Bronchial Terrorists; frankly, the undisciplined coughing during this quiet movement is a bit of a trial. Happily, the hackers are drowned out in the perky finale and the concerto’s big finish puts the coughers firmly in their place.
Two works which were quintessential Boult repertoire are Butterworth’s
A Shropshire Lad and Bax’s The Garden of Fand; late in his career he set down with the LPO superb, memorable Lyrita recordings of both (review ~ review). The present performances are excellent too. The Butterworth was recorded, in very good sound, in the BBC’s Maida Vale studio on 2 March 1969 as part of a programme to mark Sir Adrian’s 80th birthday. All I can say is that it shows his undimmed mastery in music such as this. The Bax was part of a January 1962 Festival Hall concert and it’s another fine performance.
This set of five discs ends as it began, with Elgar. His superb, Straussian In the South was part of that 1955 concert from which we’ve already heard a lot; indeed, I strongly suspect it closed the programme. Boult may not have brought to this score quite the same degree of unforgettable flamboyance that one encounters in Constantin Silvestri’s celebrated recording with the Bournemouth Symphony but I know from other Boult performances that I’ve heard that Sir Adrian was splendid in this work, not least in conveying its structure and variety of moods. Unfortunately, my review set of these discs had a flaw: the first few minutes of In the South were missing and the performance picked up a couple of minutes before the viola ‘Canto popolare’ solo. So, in compiling this review I’ve only been able to listen to the last 11:37 of the work, though on that basis I’m confident in saying that Boult gave a very good performance of Elgar’s colourful orchestral showpiece.
I'm told that the fault has since been rectified and the set now includes
the complete performance of In the South.
This collection is a very handsome tribute by the LPO to Sir Adrian Boult. It focuses particularly – and understandably – on the repertoire with which he was chiefly associated: English music and the Classical repertoire. However, there’s plenty else here – the Dohnányi, Delibes and Bartók, for instance - to show the range of this fine musician. There isn’t a dud among the performances and so you get five generously-filled discs that are packed full of musical enjoyment. Most of the performances stem from commercial recordings, including a number of vinyl sources – it’s salutary to remember that Sir Adrian’s recording career began in the acoustic age and stretched right through to
the early days of digital. All the recordings, from whatever source, have been expertly transferred and though the recordings from the 1955 concert, transferred from transcription discs, show their age somewhat, you can still enjoy the performances.
The booklet is a model of how such sets ought to be presented. There’s a distinguished essay by Andrew Neill about Sir Adrian’s career and about the recordings preserved in this set. The artist biographies are succinct but tell you all you need to know. Importantly also, full information is given about the source material of the original recordings and by whom – and how – the transfers were made.
Sir Adrian Boult was one of the finest conductors that the UK has produced. This excellent set shows why he deserves to be respected and remembered.
CD 1 [87:12]
Early Years with the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Symphony No 1 in A-flat major, Op 55 [48:18]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Symphony No 6 in E minor [38:36]
CD 2 [85:59]
Beethoven and Beyond
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Symphony No 3 in E-flat, Op 55 (‘Eroica’) [46:56]
Max Bruch (1838-1920) Kol Nidrei, Op 47* [13:05]
Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) Variations on a Nursery Song, Op 25 [22:36]
CD 3 [69:11]
Music from the Ballet
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo* [3:26]
Léo Delibes (1836-1891) Sylvia Ballet Suite [14:47]
Naďla Ballet Suite: Valse [3:44]
Coppélia Ballet Suite [25:55]
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) Danse Macabre, Op 40* [6:20]
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) The Perfect Fool Ballet Suite, Op 39 [10:46]
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) Circus Polka* [3:04]
CD 4 [78:00]
The Versatile Conductor
Jeremiah Clarke (1673-1707) Suite in D Major: IV, The Prince of Denmark’s March,
‘Trumpet Voluntary’ * [2:40]
Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending [13:21]
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Lemminkäinen's Return, Op 22, No 4 [6:18]
Sir William Walton (1902-1983) Portsmouth Point Overture* [5:47]
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta [29:13]
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) I gioielli della Madonna Suite No. 2: Intermezzo* [3:13]
Camille Saint-Saëns Caprice-Valse, 'Wedding Cake', Op 76* [6:24]
George Gershwin (1898-1937) Cuban Overture, 'Rhumba'
CD 5 [79:06]
Champion of British Music
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) Songs of the Fleet, Op 117 [19:17]
Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, Op 47 [13:10]
George Butterworth (1885-1916) A Shropshire Lad [9:32]
Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) The Garden of Fand [16:51]
Sir Edward Elgar In the South ('Alassio'), Op 50 [18:56]
* available only with this box set