BY ROB COWAN
(Re-published with permission from the author HERE)
A PERSONAL PRELUDE
Among my most valued formative musical experiences from the late 1960s was the year I spent working for what had recently been called the BBC Third Programme but was by then Radio 3. The department I was assigned to, Concerts Management, dealt with the Proms and among the senior staff working there was Frieda Grove, a tall, bright, kindly lady with a keen sense of humour and a willingness to lend guidance to greenhorn fledglings such as me.
I made it known to Frieda that I had ambitions to conduct and so she unexpectedly arranged for me to meet Sir Adrian Boult at his offices in Central London’s Wigmore Street. I was extremely excited at the prospect of our meeting though, inevitably, I was also very nervous.
When the day eventually arrived, I took a tube to London, made my way to Wigmore Street and, once at the right address, was escorted upstairs to an office where Sir Adrian sat behind his desk. His gently expressive blue eyes instantly put me at my ease, as did an outstretched hand that seemed eager to shake mine. He made me a hot cup of Horlicks (a sweet malted milk drink) which, to my surprise, I rather enjoyed. Goodness knows what impression I made on him, but he talked me through some fundamental conducting issues, such as dealing with the finale of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which alternates between 6/4 and 3/2, a tricky one to get right. He picked up his long baton and I heard in my mind’s ear what I saw, certainly, but had absolutely no idea how he arrived at the airborne patterns he was making. Sir Adrian advised me to find a choral group as a training tool, shook my hand again, wished me good luck – and that was the last time I saw him.
Alas, no choral group was to hand and the conductor in me remained an unfulfilled dream. But the experience of that meeting with Sir Adrian still takes pride of place in my musical memory bank.
Boult was, relatively speaking, the ‘straight guy’ in the great British conducting ‘all-Bs’ triumvirate that also included Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir John Barbirolli. Decca Eloquence’s important three-volume retrospective Sir Adrian Boult: The Decca Legacy both confirms and contradicts that familiar rather conservative reputation. What we have here are collections of British Music (Volume 1), Baroque and Sacred Music (Volume 2) and 19thand 20th Century Music (Volume 3).
Starting with Volume 3 (4842284, 16 cds, c£75.00) accompanying violinist Mischa Elman’s highly emotive but strong-willed way with Tchaikovsky’s Concerto would prove a challenge for even the most competent maestro but Boult keeps his cool, much as Barbirolli did in the same work with the same soloist pre-War (Warner Classics). Even as early as Elman’s first entry, there’s a very brief pause, a sort of ‘am I on yet?’ though his intonation is always true and even when climbing hills and sliding down dales he manages to cope, just. And that ‘sob’ to the tone, quite inimitable. Elman, Boult and the LPO also offer us the Bruch First and Wieniawski Second Concertos. My only quibble with Ruggiero Ricci’s 1952 recording of the Beethoven Concerto (with Kreisler’s first movement cadenza) is a very occasional tendency to evade the note’s centre but otherwise Ricci and Boult offer a broadly paced, noble reading of this great work, ‘old school’ it’s true but well worth the occasional visit.
Other sympathetically conducted concertos include Alfredo Campoli playing the Mendelssohn E minor and the Bruch ‘Scottish Fantasy’, the latter impossible to dissociate from Heifetz, for us, and on the evidence presented here, for Campoli too, whose playing betrays Heifetz’s influence. It’s a lovely disc as is a coupling featuring Zara Nelsova of Cello Concertos by Saint-Saëns (his First) and Lalo, the latter for me quite spoiled by sforzando chords in the first movement that sound like a barking dog trapped in a nearby back yard. Take note that that’s my personal reaction to the music, whereas the performance could hardly be bettered.
Another personal beef concerns Dohnányi’s ‘Variations on a Nursery Song’ for piano and orchestra, presented here twice (in mono and stereo) which opens to a portentously Wagnerian orchestral Introduction (as proof of Boult’s consistency it plays for exactly 3:43 on both versions) then switches to the solo pianist playing silly beggars with ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’. The ‘joke’ works once, maybe twice, even three times, though nowadays I go straight to the nursery song, follow the course of Dohnanyi’s warming set of Variations and enjoy Julius Katchen’s superb playing. The coupling on both discs are brilliant, fleet-fingered accounts of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody where Boult, the LPO and Katchen achieve watertight ensemble playing.
Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto is entrusted to Clifford Curzon whose rapport with Boult and the LPO is palpable. This is a grand, luxuriant performance, virtuosic where needs be and coupled with equally pleasing (stereo) accounts of Litolff’s ‘Scherzo’ and Franck’s ‘Symphonic Variations’.
Rachmaninov’s First Concerto enjoys heartfelt and forthright advocacy from Peter Katin and the welcome coupling is Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard, and fairly sizeable, ‘Concert Fantasia’ which, again, is given a technically assured and emotionally engaging performance, Boult and his players fully supportive of their soloist in both works, while the stereo sound is excellent. Chopin’s First Piano Concerto is presented in an interesting version prepared by Balakirev and allows the young Friedrich Gulda to exhibit the full range of his musical and pianistic intelligence.
As to purely orchestral works, a mono LPO coupling of Tchaikovsky’s Overtures ‘Hamlet’ and ‘1812’ finds Boult on thrilling form in the former while leaving the latter dead in the water. The ‘Polish’, or Third, Symphony is extraordinarily exciting, especially the first movement, while the ‘Andante elegiaco’ slow movement is played with considerable reserves of feeling, especially by the LPO strings. The primitive stereo sound is best at the top end, leaving the bottom end of the spectrum rather fuzzy.
Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Symphonies, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter, although well enough performed, are similarly afflicted, sound-wise. Best of all is Tchaikovsky’s Third orchestral Suite with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, in credible stereo this time, a performance that to my mind is a considerable improvement on Boult’s EMI re-make with the LPO, even though there violinist Erich Gruenberg was on hand to perform his big solo in the last movement. Here it’s Pierre Nerini, a sweetly individual player very much in the tradition of the French violin school while Boult’s handling of the work’s witty scherzo – especially its perky ‘Jack in the Box’ trio – is infinitely more incisive than on the later London version. Also from Paris, a lively and vividly drawn ‘Lt. Kijé’ Suite (in stereo, with one of the best ‘Troikas’ I’ve ever heard), one half of an all-Prokofev CD that also includes ‘The Love of Three Oranges’ Suite in mono, the LPO on good form but no real match for ‘Kijé’. And lastly in this set, Mahler, whose music Boult conducted on numerous occasions, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic and Kirsten Flagstad in ‘Kindertotenlieder’ and ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’, stereophonically recorded performances notable above all for their sincerity and conceptual simplicity. The orchestra too plays beautifully.
Turning to Volume 2 (13 cds, 4842302, c£70.00), the Baroque and Sacred selections are dominated by two recordings of Handel’s ‘Messiah’, one in mono, the other in stereo, but Flagstad is again represented, this time by a disc of Bach and Handel arias and one of ‘Great Sacred Songs’ (‘Jerusalem’, ‘O Come All ye Faithful’ and the like). The voice is both distinctive and much loved and those considerations are likely to prove decisive, rather than Boult’s heavy-handed LPO accompaniments. I have a particular liking for the singing of the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar, whose way with lighter fare made him exceedingly popular in years gone by, but hear his ‘Handel Songs and Arias’ album and the voice sits just as happily in ‘Ombra mai fu’ or ‘Silent Worship’, though if you are addicted to say Andreas Scholl in the former then McKellar’s full-throated lyricism is likely to prompt a show of red mist. The same CD also adds bonuses including Benjamin Britten conducting the LSO and LSO Chorus in his own arrangement of the National Anthem, once out on a 7” ‘extended play’ vinyl record.
Kathleen Ferrier’s ‘Bach-Handel Recital’, her final studio recording, appears twice, first as originally taped in mono in 1952 then a ‘stereo’ version with ‘new’ accompaniments recorded in 1960 (Ferrier died from cancer in 1953). Where singing isn’t involved, there’s no problem: Boult and the team simply redid the tutti for stereo and that was that. But when Ferrier enters, the centralised voice sometimes remains bonded to surrounding instruments, especially if you’re listening on cans. Musically, I was interested to note from Peter Quantrill’s supplementary essay that Ferrier’s collaborating mentor in Mahler, Bruno Walter, felt that her special ‘spiritual’ qualities were especially suited to the religious music of Bach and Handel. A telling remark, that, especially as all we read of Walter on Ferrier tends to be about her singing of Mahler. But for me the solemn, even sombre combination of Boult and Ferrier in say ‘All is fulfilled’ from Bach’s ‘St John Passion’ has something ‘holier than thou’, even discomfortingly phantasmal about it, though I know that others will feel differently. The voice is certainly very beautiful, and Ferrier’s enunciation is impeccable.
The bigger works are excellent in their different ways. Handel’s delightful pastoral opera ‘Acis and Galatea’ stars Joan Sutherland, Peter Pears, David Galliver and Owen Brannigan, vocal stalwarts of the 1960s who perform well while Boult’s conducting of the St. Anthony Singers and the Philomusica of London keeps all concerned alert and on the ball. Of the two Messiahs (both use an edition by Julian Herbage) the principal difference is with the two orchestras, a tonally subdued but intensely communicative LPO in 1954 while for the 1961 remake Boult and his team switch to a keener-edged, better recorded LSO, the Orchestra known for its dynamic performances and recordings under the likes of Pierre Monteux and Antál Doráti. Compare the two versions of ‘For unto us’ and the difference is quite striking. As to the soloists, the superb ’54 line-up of Jennifer Vyvyan, Norma Procter, George Maran and Owen Brannigan is perhaps the more reverential-sounding of the two, whereas for the 1961 stereo remake Sutherland, Grace Bumbry, McKellar and David Ward lean more towards a bel canto style of delivery, Sutherland especially. I have to admit a marked preference for the more immediate 1961 version.
When it comes to Boult’s coverage of British music in Volume 1 (16 cds, 4842204, c£75.00), further comparisons are suggested by the set’s centrepiece, the first-ever complete recorded cycle of Ralph Vaughan-Williams’s nine symphonies, invariably with both the composer and his wife Ursula attending the sessions. The one main exception was the Ninth, recorded in stereo on the eve of the composer’s death (the conductor/producer John Carewe stepped in as supervisor) by the Everest company and issued by Decca under license from the label’s successors. Considering how recent the work was the performance is remarkably assured, both as playing and as representative of the Symphony’s powerful sense of foreboding.
Pitting Boult on Decca (mostly in mono, the entertaining Eighth being the sole exception) against his subsequent remakes for Warner Classics is tantamount to playing swings and roundabouts though for me the extra levels of concentration achieved in the 1950s invariably win the day.
Best of all are Symphonies Nos. 2, or ‘London’, 3, or ‘Pastoral’, 4 and 6, the 2nd combining a misty evocation of Big Ben’s chimes with fast traffic chaos, cockney-style ebullience and a good measure of mystery. Boult balances these elements to perfection. In the Third’s first movement only André Previn with the LSO come close to Boult’s sense of rapture while under Boult the offstage presence of Margaret Ritchie’s soprano leaves a disquieting impression in the closing ‘Lento’.
For years I’d unfairly daubed the dramatic Fourth as ‘Dad’s Army drama’, a failed effort to match the big guns of Mahler, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but acquainting myself with RVW’s own pre-War recording, a real firecracker, and this iron-fisted Boult performance, where the work’s Beethovenian roots are laid bare, put me straight. The Sixth is another apparent harbinger of trouble, specifically in the anguished first movement. Boult premiered the original version in 1948 and within a year it had achieved some 100 performances, prompted no doubt by imagined associations with the tragic close of war, which the composer tended to wave away as so much piffle.
‘Sinfonia Antartica’ draws on incidental music that RVW had written for the 1948 film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. It’s a huge score calling for all manner of effects, including a wind machine, assorted percussion and, in the first and last movements, a soprano solo (Margaret Ritchie here) and a three-part women’s chorus. The score also includes a brief literary quotation at the start of each movement, spoken on this recording by Sir John Gielgud. Boult’s compelling performance is well captured by producers John Culshaw and James Walker though it’s worth mentioning at this juncture that if you don’t fancy the ‘black and white’ of mono sound then Pristine Audio offer a more colourful, widened spectrum (‘Sinfonia Antartica’ is on PASC 668, available from www.pristineclassical.com) that works especially well in the third ‘landscape’ movement though at the start of the ’Alla marcia’ Epilogue Decca’s ‘straight’ transfer has the greater impact. And there’s the ‘Sea Symphony’, a favourite with choral societies though not perhaps among the greatest of the symphonies, a first-ever recording that must have burst upon the listening public of the day like a holy declamation, the performance much lauded on its first release and that still stands the test of time.
RVW’s friend Holst reckoned ‘Job, a Masque for Dancing’ to be the composer’s masterpiece, an understandable assessment widely echoed by RVW aficionados and while (to these ears) the weather-worn ‘Introduction and Sarabande of the sons of God’ suggests the ruggedly attired composer sitting in a tumbledown country shack, bible in hand, the subsequent movements more suggest the tortured complexities of Job’s tribulations and his continued devotion to God. It’s wonderful music and deserves wider circulation in concert than it has so far received. This is surely Boult’s consummate performance of the score on disc, though a forthcoming release from SOMM of a Boston Symphony broadcast looks fascinating. Other featured RVW works include the ballet ‘Old King Cole’ (the familiar nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole was a Merry Old Soul’ is slammed out for all its worth at the beginning) and the Aristophanic Suite ‘The Wasps’.
As to the rest, I’d imagine that Boult and Campoli bring us fairly close to what Kreisler and Elgar would have sounded like in Elgar’s Violin Concerto, the warmth of it, the geniality too, and, where necessary, the brilliance. There are Elgar’s ‘Chanson de Matin’ and ‘Chanson de Nuit’, both charmingly done, his ‘Bavarian Dances’ and eight immensely likeable ‘English Dances’ by Sir Malcolm Arnold as well as distinguished performances of works by Butterworth (‘A Shropshire Lad’ and ‘The Banks of Green Willow’) and Bax (‘Tintagel’), Walton (his suite of Bach arrangements, ‘The Wise Virgins’, for one, though I don’t think ‘Portsmouth Point’ was quite Boult’s thing) and Holst including the wonderful ‘Hymn of Jesus’, ‘Egdon Heath’, two recordings of ‘The Perfect Fool’ and a quartet of first releases, ‘A Somerset Rhapsody’, ‘Scherzo from Unfinished Symphony’ (which sounds like a discarded off-cut from ‘The Planets’), ‘Marching Song’ and a stereo release of ‘Country Song’.
Humphrey Searle’s First Symphony is the set’s toughest nut, but Boult and his players don’t seem in the least bit phased by it. The set closes with two interesting pieces by Matyás Seiber that don’t involve Boult but were on the same lp as the Searle.
A PERSONAL POSTLUDE
Summing up I must pay tribute to Eloquence’s Executive Producer Cyrus Meher-Homji OAM, Transfer Engineer Chris Bernauer, and the scholar and writer Nigel Simeone whose comprehensive annotations are not only invaluable but a joy to read, especially when it comes to Boult and Vaughan Williams. Simeone’s detailed 330-page study ‘Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult’ is available from Boydell Press, ISBN. 9781783277292, price £32.50 (an offer from Pristine Audio at www.pristineclassical.com; the official RRP is £50.00).
If working on a budget and forced to choose just one set, I’d opt for Volume One, principally because Boult knew so many of the featured composers and the artistic bond with Vaughan Williams was so strong. Beyond that, Volume Three includes the biggest ratio of interpretative surprises and some star soloists and if Volume Two offers what one might nowadays term ‘Philharmonic’ Baroque, there are some great featured singers and the 1961 ‘Messiah’ is rather special.
At the head of this review I referred to Boult as the ‘straight guy’ in the great British conducting ‘all-Bs’ triumvirate that also included Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir John Barbirolli. How did these three masters differ? Barbirolli and Beecham both excelled in opera, which generally speaking was not really Boult’s bag; Beecham was a magician who could seduce with Delius or raise a storm with Wagner, Barbirolli a warm-hearted exponent of music with an emotional core, Puccini and Mahler especially. Boult was a cooler customer than either, but he could on occasion surprise his listeners with volatile Tchaikovsky or impassioned Elgar. Like his idol Toscanini, his heart was securely in his chest, not on his sleeve, but the pulse of his performances was nearly always strong which is why he so often confounded expectations. That ability to occasionally suspend belief is abundantly apparent throughout all three of these marvellous sets.