Symphony No.1 in B flat minor
Dennis Noble (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult
Recorded 10-14 September 1953 (Belshazzar’s Feast) and 15-17 September 1956 in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: May 2010
CD No: SOMM CÉLESTE
Duration: 78 minutes
Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) had a long and illustrious career as a conductor and teacher. Having graduated from Oxford University in 1912, he went to Leipzig to study under Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922). He had his first professional conducting engagement in 1914, and by 1918 had conducted the premieres of Holst’s The Planets and the first revision of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony. During his time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1930-1950) he conducted many performances of contemporary music by such as Berg, Mahler and Bartók as well as by many British composers.
Boult had a long and fruitful relationship with the London Philharmonic, whose chief conductor he became after his enforced retirement from the BBC and after the great Dutch conductor Eduard van Beinum had had to retire due to ill-health. This release from Somm collects together two works by Sir William Walton, works which Sir Adrian did not record again in the studio.
“Belshazzar’s Feast” was commissioned by the BBC and first performed at the Leeds Festival in 1931 under Malcolm Sargent. It’s a work which remains a firm favourite with choral societies despite Sir Thomas Beecham’s suggestion to the composer before the premiere that since he would never again hear the piece he ought to include a couple of brass bands. There is, indeed, much spectacular writing for brass, some of it antiphonal, very suitable for stereo reproduction. However, this mono recording has both Sir Adrian’s large-scale view of the work to recommend it, as well as a superb contribution by Denis Noble who had recorded the work ten years earlier under the composer’s direction and during some of the darkest days of World War Two. Noble’s colouring of the words and clarity of diction still stand as an example today. The chorus sounds compact and sing with excellent ensemble, and the LPO plays the jazzier sections with relish.
The first of Walton’s two symphonies gave the composer some difficulties in writing the finale. Having had the suggestion for writing a symphony from Sir Hamilton Harty in 1932, the first three movements had their first performance at the end of 1934, the first complete performance taking place with Harty and the BBCSO at the end of 1935. The last movement, after all the problems in writing it, triumphs with its fugue halfway through, a touch of genius in its inspiration.
While the London Philharmonic was not the tightest of orchestras during the mid-1950s, the playing throughout is remarkably intense and the odd patch of loose ensemble does not count for much. Boult grades the dynamics with excellent control, the second movement sufficiently malicious, and the third (Andante con malincolia) entirely gripping particularly in the Shostakovich-like ending. If more-recent recordings under Previn, Slatkin or Litton have a greater claim for consideration, Boult’s grasp of the architecture of the piece demands hearing.
I first came across this recording in 1968 on Pye Golden Guinea GSGC14008, one of the first LPs I bought. Issued in 1964 this was its first UK stereo release. The same coupling as on this Somm CD was released by the company that Pye-Nixa became, PRT, using the tapes from the Pye library. The symphony resulted from a co-production with Westminster, and that release uses some takes different from the Pye and Somm releases, also shown by the difference in each movement’s timing. In addition, re-mastering the Pye tapes for the PRT releases (PVCD 8377 and NICXD 6012) involved adding reverberation to the acoustic of the Walthamstow venue which then more resembled a cathedral in those releases; the Westminster tapes, contemporaneously released by First Hand Records (to be reviewed separately) have that much more detail without that added coat of acoustic, yet are not too dry as a result.
However, the sound quality on this Somm issue is remarkably good and the source material, which SOMM’s documentation states is a Nixa mono LP, betrays no sign of an LP surface. The results are similar to the earlier PRT releases, with some improvements; there is more information at the top end and odd patches of boom in the lower bass are no longer evident. Good though the sound is, the less reverberant issue of the Symphony from the Westminster tapes gives more detail and impact, which the work needs. First Hand Records’ issue concentrates on the 1956 recordings, so “Belshazzar’s Feast” is not included. Boult and Walton fans will want both releases!