Sir Adrian Boult – The 1956 Nixa-Westminster Stereo Recordings, Volume 1 [Britten, Elgar & Walton]

0 of 5 stars

Soirées musicales, Op.9 (a) (b)
Matinées musicales, Op.24 (a) (b)
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Op.34 [Sir Adrian Boult narrating]
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Op.34 [without narration] (b) (d) (+)
Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes, Op.33a, and Passacaglia, Op.33b
Falstaff – Symphonic Study, Op.68 (a) (c)
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63 (a)
Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op.40
(a) (b)
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor (a)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult

Recorded 15-31 August 1956 in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London

First release on CD of the original Westminster Source masters (a)
First stereo release on CD and first release in any format in UK (b)
First release on CD from tape source (c)
First stereo recordings, except for (d)
All re-mastered using original analogue tapes (except for +)

Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: May 2010
FHR06 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 50 minutes



In addition to recording for HMV and, earlier, Decca, Sir Adrian Boult made a substantial number of recordings in the mid- to late-1950s for Pye-Nixa, Westminster, Vanguard and Everest. Among these are included pieces he never recorded again, a splendid Mahler Symphony No.1, Hindemith Symphony in E flat and Shostakovich Symphony No.6 for Everest and the beginnings of a Beethoven cycle for Vanguard.

For the Pye-Nixa-Westminster collaboration in 1956, the early days of recording in stereo, works by Elgar, Walton and Britten were set down. Also Schumann’s four symphonies and the eight overtures by Berlioz: these all to appear in another set from First Hand Records. Many of the works on this English music release appear for the first time in stereo or on CD.

The sessions began on 15 August 1956 with Boult’s only commercial recording of Sir William Walton’s Symphony No.1 (a live account from the 1970s has been available). It gets a tight performance, brimful of energy, the orchestra on knife-edge. The second movement’s malice is well communicated, if a little less so than André Previn achieved a decade later with the LSO, and the third movement’s moving melancholy holds the attention, grabbing the listener into its bleak intensity. The finale, with its late inspiration for including a fugue in its construction, shows how successful that conceit is, Boult’s experience judging the climaxes in each movement perfectly.Oddly, the results here differ from earlier UK releases in so far as producer Kurt List used subtly different takes from the results assembled by Pye. The re-mastering for this release used Westminster’s tapes now held in Hannover by Universal, and the overall sound quality is different from earlier issues on CD by PRT and Somm in that the original ambience has been retained, with no added reverberation. The result as far as the Walton Symphony is concerned is the greater contact the listener has with the performance. The orchestra is more tangible, the timpani sounding truly alarming shorn of the cloak of added reverberation, and little details previously masked become all the more evident.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra was billed for contractual reasons on the Westminster releases as the “Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra”. Sir Adrian had a long and fruitful relationship with the LPO which lasted until his retirement and his last recording, music by Hubert Parry (for EMI), was completed with this orchestra on 20 December 1978. When these Nixa-Westminster recordings were made, Boult had been at the helm of the LPO for six years, a time when it was not considered as being in the same league as the Philharmonia Orchestra. I don’t think the odd patch of loose ensemble in the Walton affects the integrity of the performance. Elgar’s Second Symphony, recorded over the same few days as the Walton symphony, does not fare as well. The strings sound a little understaffed, and the patches of scruffy ensemble are laid all too bare by List’s transparent recording technique. Boult’s later recording for Lyrita (his fourth of five) also with the LPO is a tidier affair, though the vision remains the same.

These sessions also include an excellent rendition of Elgar’s Cockaigne, bright and bustling, tender in the central section, the performance successful without the ad lib organ at the end. A couple of days later Elgar’s Falstaff was set down and this fares very well indeed. Boult overall vision doesn’t highlight episodes along the way, and he makes much work with the tiny variations in phrasing and tempo so necessary in this piece. The recording is crystal-clear, details, especially those of the percussion, seldom appearing with such open clarity on a recording. This performance appears also in an LPO box devoted to Elgar; it is less-well transferred from an LP and lacks the precision in sound achieved from the Westminster master-tape.

Boult was no stranger to performing and recording ‘light’ music, such as by Eric Coates. Britten’s takes on Rossini pieces for Soirées musicales and Matinées musicales sing with light-hearted energy and good fun, with excellent playing. Again, List’s ideas on recording ensure the listener gets crisp life-like percussion. The ‘Sea Interludes’ and ‘Passacaglia’ from “Peter Grimes” receive very fine performances, Boult making sure the pictorial elements in the music are brought to life. The ebb-and-flow of the tide is superbly caught, and there’s a suitably terrifying ‘Storm’. The Passacaglia is unfolded with consummate expertise, Boult having a complete grip on the shape of the music.

For the recording of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra with Boult’s narration, First Hand Records uses the Pye tape now owned by EMI. In mono, the sound is excellent. Boult has a warm speaking voice drawing the listener in. Unfortunately, the stereo tape for YPG (without narration) cannot be found, so included here is a transfer from a stereo LP. While not as three-dimensional as the other recordings in this set, the results are still very good indeed, and judging from the extended tenuti between sections it seems this derives from the same tapes as the performance with narration.

At the end of these Westminster sessions, overseen by List, the engineers, Herbert Zeithammer and Mario Mizzaro presented the producer with a tape of some of the rehearsal for Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. List issued this in the US as part of a disc entitled “HiFi in the making – Sir Adrian Boult rehearses and performs Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”, and contributed the sleeve-note. Here, he explains his recording methods, always having the orchestra seated in the studio in the way best suited to his recording technique, a way “which never coincides with the conventional concert seating; thus quite a different span of attention is required of the conductor and the orchestral musicians for their ensemble playing.” Boult seems to have been quite amenable to this arrangement despite his well-known preference for dividing first and second violins across the platform, a preference also denied him when recording the Elgar symphonies for Lyrita.

This fascinating and rewarding set from First Hand Records has given enormous pleasure, not least due to the excellent presentation, which includes very informative booklet notes (by Colin Anderson and Peter Bromley), colour reproductions of the original LP sleeves and black-and-white ones from the sessions. This set restores some rare Boult’s recordings to the catalogue in as fine a sound as possible, the transfers having been done from the best sources and with great care; what good news it is that a second volume of Boult’s Nixa-Westminster recordings (Schumann and Berlioz) is to be released. This current FHR set is indispensable.

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