Sir Adrian Boult: From Bach to Wagner [EMI]

0 of 5 stars

Bach (Brandenburg Concertos, complete), Symphonies by Beethoven (No.6, Pastoral), Brahms (complete, plus the two Serenades), Mozart (No.35, Haffner & No.41, Jupiter) and Schubert (No.9, Great), together with Wagner (numerous orchestral excerpts from the operas)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult

Recorded between 1957 and 1978

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: September 2012
CD No: EMI 6 35657 2 (11 CDs)
Duration: 12 hours 46 minutes



Long before conductors were afforded the luxury of using period instruments, Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) was being faithful in providing what the scores showed as to composers’ notation. He did this using the modern symphony orchestra. It resulted in presentations of Baroque and Classical music in what we might call ‘big band’ performances. A notable feature was his avoidance of the then fashionable type of subjective interpretation prevalent in the mid-20th-century. He never imposed tempo changes merely for effect and he did not include the many amendments of orchestration that conductors tended to sanction at that time. Felix Weingartner was a conductor whom Boult greatly admired and with hindsight it could even be said that his conducting methods were to some extent similar. It will be remembered however that it was Weingartner who suggested some of these changes of orchestration, particularly in Beethoven’s symphonies, but Boult pointed out that on his last visit to England Weingartner was asked a question about the book in which he had written these recommendations and he replied: “If you have that book of mine on rescoring Beethoven then please will you go home and take it from your shelf and put it in your waste paper basket.”

This second disc is completed by Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. Recorded in the mid-1970s it was a very rare example of a performance where the conductor fully obeyed the composer’s instructions regarding repeats. At that time I recall no other recording with all da capos apart from that made by Rudolf Barshai. This work certainly benefits from being given a reading that is large in scale. The recording could have been clearer, the strings are rather forward and the timpani only strike through when being played forte. Their more subtle moments are not easily discernible. The finale (12 minutes long with both repeats) is very grand and Boult’s pace is comfortable but forward-moving. This is music that shows the conductor’s insistence on distributing first and second violins to left and right respectively to great advantage. Amidst some good playing there are a few uncomfortable woodwind moments – especially in their downward flourishes when they appear in the second subject of the finale.

Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony commences disc 3. It was recorded a few months later and there seems to be a touch more resonance but rather less clarity. Tempos are beautifully judged. Surprisingly Boult makes neither repeat in the slow movement but there is logic in this since when Mozart made this symphony out of an existing serenade, the repeat markings of the first movement got lost, so their omission in the following movement makes for a consistent pattern. The Minuet is strikingly good – very firm and positive with no relaxing at double bars and an admirable avoidance of rallentando at the end. Also the last two notes are there; far too many of today’s conductors rob us of them. The Overture to Die Zauberflöte, recorded eight years earlier, has clearer sound: violins are crisper, the timpani complete the mid-lower part of the full chords more convincingly and the woodwinds are more precise. This is a strong performance and that of Beethoven’s Coriolan is stronger still. There is real urgency here and the 1970 recording is very well defined; a rather special reading.

The opening of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony responds to an easy-going approach. Some conductors find this a problem in that the metronome mark for this movement is extraordinarily fast. Thirty-five years ago when this recording was made conductors usually took a medium pace that did not press the music – Monteux and Böhm come to mind. Boult also takes the medium option and defines the woodwind clearly – excellent bassoon in particular. A swiftly-flowing brook is Boult’s vision of the second movement and the lightness of his conducting makes this a charmingly untroubled interlude. Lively peasants, suitably heavy-footed where suitable, make for a cheerful scherzo and the divided violins are exciting during the tense lead into the ‘Storm’ where the measured pace allows for much detail; timpani have a realistic tone and are well balanced – essential in this movement – and there is splendid brass in the finale which is full of joy.

Despite his loyal approach to the ‘great classics’ Sir Adrian doesn’t seem to have managed to put himself outside the web of tradition when it comes to conducting Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony. Certainly the introduction is magical and beautifully played promising a noble interpretation, yet very soon in the Allegro ma non troppo an unconvincing performing tradition creeps in. True there is not the crude slowing down for the second subject that has spoilt many a performance but somehow the basic tempo just doesn’t quite keep up. This feels very uncomfortable and the same happens when the melody returns at the recapitulation. Later we arrive at the full orchestra restatement of the opening horn theme which comes not long after Schubert had taken the unusual step of increasing the tempo. But instead of retaining this faster speed, Boult hauls it back as soon as that theme arrives. This is an old tradition, perpetrated by many conductors but I see no justification for it. The Andante con moto is beautifully played: march-like yet delicate, a lovely reading. Praise is due for the observation of all repeats in the scherzo and trio (there are neither in the outer movements though) but once again tradition seems to take over and the tempo fails to keep up as the trio section begins and there is another uncomfortable change of gear when the scherzo returns. A sturdy finale follows; steadiness seems to assist propulsion although a little bit more dynamic contrast would have been welcome. Altogether this is a conventional Schubert 9, I had anticipated something special.

The remaining items on the disc are excellent – the quality of the 1957 recording of Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens Overture and ‘Turkish March’ is very good. These are Philharmonia Orchestra recordings from a golden age; Dennis Brain was first horn in the ‘March’. Suppé’s Poet and Peasant Overture is magnificent; a truly joyful performance with more than a hint of violence at times and the percussion players are not at all reserved – the Philharmonia plays with tremendous panache. Johann Strauss I’s Radetzky March is just as splendid with more fierce percussion and I like the way the wind instruments are exaggerated; it does not include the amazing horn sounds found in Knappertsbusch’s legendary recording but there is an excitement that is its equal: a performance to dispel the myth that Boult was temperate in his conducting.

Discs 5, 6 and 7 make a bold statement about Sir Adrian Boult and his approach to Wagner, all recorded in the 1970s, like so much here, Boult’s ‘Indian Summer’. The non-operatic Faust Overture finds an expressive LPO and as with the Rienzi and Flying Dutchman ‘overtures’ and the ‘Grand March’ from Tannhäuser we are given weightier sound, the double basses being exceptionally strong. For the Wagner recordings only, Robert Gooch was the engineer and there is a slightly different approach, spaciousness around the horn section being a noticeable feature. The Philharmonia (New Philharmonia at this period) is even better in the Tannhäuser Overture and there seems to be an added passion in Sir Adrian’s reading, the music is driven towards its close with ever-increasing tension and for once those amazing descending string phrases manage mostly to emerge from beneath the triumphant brass. A mere five seconds after this glorious music has fully died away the ‘Grand March’ commences and I find this disturbing; the grandeur of the Overture should have ended the disc.

The readings of excerpts from Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Das Rheingold are well done although the switch of character between Philharmonia and LPO is audible when going from piece to piece but Boult is in his element with the ‘Rhine Journey’ and ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’ from Götterdämmerung; in the latter there are some excitingly powerful chords and highly skilled orchestral playing. The extended sequence from Parsifal, played this time by the LSO, are much gentler in nature as is Siegfried Idyll and the playing is suitably gracious; there is something gratifying about Boult’s way with this music.

Following the Idyll comes an intriguing version of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra on the same day as the excerpts from Ruins of Athens. Although not mentioned in the booklet, this is performed in the extravagant orchestration by Max Reger with its interesting switches between rich full-orchestra passages and those with solo strings. Bright rhythmic impulse is a striking feature of this Boult-led performance and the 1957 recording is excellent.

The final four CDs are devoted to Brahms. All are with the LPO with the exception of the LSO in Symphony 3 and the Tragic Overture. Brahms suffers from the effects of long-standing impositions on his music. So it is worth looking at how the generally purist approach of Adrian Boult affects that aspect in the light of these traditional conventions. Firstly, and sadly, he pulls back the big chorale at the end of the First Symphony as do so many conductors. Another unwelcome habit is to permit the second subject of the finale of Symphony 2 to slacken and this also happens. These points apart, these are freshly observed readings – no holding back in the development of the first movement of No.1 and no undue anticipation of the slower tempo towards its close. All repeats are observed.

With Boult, Brahms sounds big and bold from the outset – there is a threatening introduction to No.1 and in the Allegro the climaxes are carefully fashioned. A lighter touch informs the inner movements but the finale is suitably severe. Refusal to adjust tempo from moment to moment achieves admirable continuity. Symphony 2 takes a long while to unfold and at first the violins are strangely subdued. The climactic moments might have been more strongly contrasted, Brahms does not use timpani until halfway through the movement and a more obvious sudden change of texture would have been welcome. The slow movement is fashioned with eloquent ease and after a gracious Allegretto grazioso the finale, slack second subject apart, is suitably exultant. Boult is uncharacteristically indulgent with the second melody in Symphony 3 but this is certainly a work very much to his discernment. The shadowy inner movements are expounded with affection and despite the measured tempo there is a strong impulse in the Poco allegretto, avoiding the soporific effect imposed by some conductors. There is sufficient strength in the finale to overcome an element of cloudiness in the sound. Boult is precise and unhurried. No.4, enjoying the clearest recorded sound, is the most persuasive of these performances. Perhaps there is less mystery in the centre of the first movement than usual but the momentum is admirable and the proportions set against the slow movement are ideal. Though not quite matching the legendary renderings of the finale by Toscanini and Carlos Kleiber, Boult’s reading is one of those that properly recognises the underlying pulse of the passacaglia.

Also included is Sir Adrian’s leisurely and sensitively-phrased Haydn Variations and the two overtures are full of life; nice bass drum in the Academic Festival, not much from cymbals and triangle though, and the slow central section of the Tragic is extraordinarily measured and causes the whole atmosphere of the work to seem gloomier than ever. Turning to Serenade No.1, this is an absolutely gorgeous performance. Boult is truly at one with the music yet I cannot believe that he wanted the timpani to be so indefinite. They provide suitable pedal harmonies but the sound of stick striking skin is not really evident. How good to have the first-movement repeat and how splendid to have an Adagio that really moves with purpose. This movement is often a weak point because it is discursive and lengthy but Sir Adrian puts all that right. Why is this work so neglected? Who could not feel happy after hearing the immensely cheerful finale? Serenade No.2 enjoys sweet melodies and is much gentler in character. Strange how the ear soon forgets that bizarrely Brahms chose not to use violins. All is elegance – music for a sunny day. Janet Baker’s very fine recording of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody had to be included and it sounds as dramatically impressive as ever. The Kingsway Hall acoustic is ideal for this music and the John Alldis Choir sings with great precision. Baker is balanced ideally.

This is a fitting memorial to Sir Adrian Boult in music outside of his treasured recordings of British music. I cannot always enthuse over the sound – the acoustic is natural but is sometimes lacking in detail with insufficient impact from horns and timpani. Memory suggests that Boult’s Pye, Westminster and Lyrita recordings were more focussed. Nevertheless Boult’s honesty and dedication to the composers comes through strongly. Being more ‘correct’ than some of his contemporaries did not make him less interesting and I find that his approach often reveals more than subjective underlining ever could. It seems only right to quote the conductor himself on this matter: “… the finest praise that (a conductor) can get is not ‘what a fine performance’ but something like: ‘I thought I knew and loved the work, but tonight it sounded even greater than I imagined it’.”

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