Symphony No 8 in D minor
Job: A Masque for Dancing
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult
Filmed on 12 October 1972 in Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach
Reviewed: October 2011
CD No: ICA CLASSICS
ICAD 5037 [DVD]
Duration: 73 minutes
The occasion was a special one, a Royal Philharmonic Society concert on 12 October 1972 at London’s Royal Festival Hall to mark the centenary (precisely 100 years to the day) of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the typically undemonstrative direction of its 83-year-old president and former chief Sir Adrian Boult (the composer’s most idiomatic and tireless exponent).
The first half of the programme comprised the orchestral version of On Wenlock Edge with tenor Richard Lewis (sadly not taped for transmission) and the Eighth Symphony, a work Boult recorded twice with the LPO (for Decca in September 1956, and for EMI over three separate sessions between September 1968 and March 1969). The outer movements come off best, I feel, both marvellously unforced and purposeful. By contrast, the scherzo for wind and brass is just a trifle deadpan and lacking something in mischief, while in the sublime ‘Cavatina’ for strings alone I do crave rather more of the songful ardour you always got from, say, Sir John Barbirolli in this music (“Glorious John”, as VW dubbed him, was the symphony’s dedicatee). As Boult walks off, he gently shakes the hand of the LPO’s principal cello, Alexander Cameron, who contributes such an eloquent leave-taking to the slow movement. Now approaching 90, Cameron recalls (as part of Colin Anderson’s lucid and informative booklet note) the concert being “very successful. It was a good time for the orchestra. Sir Adrian Boult was a marvellous conductor; he was economical with the beat, but he knew exactly what to do. The London Philharmonic loved Sir Adrian, and I always appreciated the very gentlemanly way in which he controlled all the music he conducted.”
However, the real reason to acquire this DVD is for the treasurable account of Job that made up the concert’s second half. VW’s masterpiece was inscribed to Boult. He recorded the work on no fewer than four occasions (and twice with the LPO, for Decca in January 1954 and Everest in November 1958). If my memory serves me correctly, this live version is the same performance that appeared on an (unauthorised) Intaglio CD nearly two decades ago. It is, not to beat about the bush, a traversal of giant authority, nobility and wisdom, with the RFH organ lending thrilling impact to the overwhelming apex of Scene VI (‘A Vision of Satan’). What makes this an even more nourishing document is to be able to study the veteran Boult’s languid yet effortlessly clear technique – you won’t encounter any daft podium antics here! (Was ever the tiniest flick of the baton capable of producing such a welter of sound?) The broadcast is interspersed with stills from William Blake’s set of illustrations published in 1826, which fuelled VW’s imagination in the first place – a nice touch, though personally I’d have preferred to see rather more of Sir Adrian in action.
Neither the finely refurbished picture quality nor the admirably full-blooded mono sound give any real cause for gripes. Now, I wonder whether ICA might be able to restore Boult conducting VW’s Fifth Symphony from 1970, a tantalising snippet of which appeared in the BBC TV centenary portrait from April 1989 entitled “ACB”?