Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult
Recorded at concerts in Royal Albert Hall, London – Brahms on 17 August 1976, Elgar on 29 March 1971
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2011
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5019
Duration: 78 minutes
Among Sir Adrian Boult’s greatest commercial recordings is his 1973 account with the London Philharmonic of Brahms’s First Symphony for EMI, a performance of sheer rightness and deep satisfaction. From a few years later, from the BBC Proms, is this similarly magnificent version caught on the wing before a packed Royal Albert Hall, the 87-year-old Boult commanding a fiery, incisive, lyrically-affecting and passionate response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This was at a time when Boult tended to conduct parts of concerts; on this occasion he also led Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, the programme opening with Berg’s Chamber Concerto conducted by John Carewe with György Pauk and Paul Crossley as respectively the violin and piano soloists.
Not that any allowance need be made for Boult’s age, for this Brahms 1 hits the ground running, the slow introduction enveloping the listener as a mighty emotional outpouring. If the start of the exposition is just a little sluggish in relation to the free-flowing opening, it soon finds its energised feet and with the observance of the repeat the work is pursuing a high-voltage course that will be sustained to a triumphal close and the roar of the audience’s approval. The slow movement is shot-through with feeling, the intermezzo-like third has an amiable gait and the finale is superbly wrought in its sense of direction and culmination to complete a traversal of conviction, excellence and rejuvenating powers. It’s as if Boult (1889-1983) took the view that this might be the last time he would conduct this music, for not only is there a palpable lifetime’s experience in his direction and understanding, he also seems to pour his entire being into it and takes the BBCSO with him for a glorious farewell.
Unfortunately the Elgar is not so consistently inspiring, a rather humdrum performance at times taken from a concert to mark the centenary of the Royal Albert Hall, the playing not without scrappiness and also less than assured, almost as if Boult was willing to take too much for granted or was simply below par on the night. There’s no doubting his assured shaping of the whole, but inspiration is in fits and starts if not without affecting moments: ‘Nimrod’ is very moving in its veracity, and as the score progresses one becomes aware of a more-involved Boult and a more-responsive BBCSO. The close of the work includes the ad lib organ part with a leading player of his generation, George Thalben Ball (1896-1987), who had played a Handel organ concerto earlier in the evening – and who would be knighted in 1982 and which presumably explains the lack of a ‘Sir’ in ICA’s presentation – returns to the RAH’s organ console and its 9,999 pipes and numerous buttons and pedals to release a subterranean growling presence and cathedral-like amplitude without dominating the orchestra. It’s rather wonderful and here Boult is significantly expansive and expressively outgoing.
The recording quality (stereo) for both works is more than acceptable (the high and wide vistas of the RAH faithfully captured) and has been very well re-mastered. The Brahms is the thing – it’s tremendous and alone worth the price of admission – the disc being completed by some wise words (three minutes’ worth) from Boult, interviewed at the time of his 85th-birthday, regarding how best to find the right tempo.