Le Corsaire, Op.21
Le Roi Lear, Op.4
Béatrice et Bénédict
Les Francs-juges, Op.3
Le Carnaval romain, Op.9
Symphony No.1 in B flat, Op.38 (Spring)
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 [Revised Version]
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult
Recorded 21-24 & 28-29 August 1956 in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach
Reviewed: November 2010
CD No: FIRST HAND RECORDS
FHR07 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 27 minutes
Three cheers for this hugely welcome follow up to First Hand Records’ invaluable restoration of Boult’s August 1956 Elgar, Walton and Britten recordings for Nixa-Westminster. I’m delighted to be able to report that the Schumann symphonies in particular have never leapt out of my loudspeakers in quite such irrepressibly vivid fashion as they do here. The conspicuously successful (and astutely non-interventionist) re-mastering is effected by Ian Jones at Abbey Road Studios from the Pye Nixa tapes currently held by EMI. If anything, the Berlioz overtures sound even crisper, the percussion captured with notable impact, though it’s a shame about the unusual positioning of instruments which could be reversed channels in Le Corsaire and Le Carnaval romain (perhaps this can be rectified in a future pressing?).
Whoever had the bright idea of reprinting Sir Adrian’s original liner-notes for the Schumann symphonies deserves commendation, as they shed fascinating light on his approach to this repertoire. It would appear that the abundant temperament and sparky interpretative profile of Boult’s Schumann stem in no small degree from lessons learnt watching Arthur Nikisch, whose London concerts he first attended in 1902 while a 12-year-old pupil at Westminster School, and whose rehearsals he was permitted to attend during his year’s sojourn in Leipzig a decade later. (Among the works the 23-year-old student witnessed the legendary maestro prepare were Schumann’s First and Second Symphonies.)
Boult goes on to recall: “Although Nikisch’s performances were always highly personal, many of us could feel quite happy when the composer was Schumann. Nikisch himself told how in the Leipzig Gewandhaus when he was conducting the Fourth Symphony with Frau Schumann in the audience, he came to the point in the development of the first movement where he usually allowed himself to coax a big largamente from the trombones as they lifted the orchestra over a series of beautiful modulations. This had aroused some adverse criticism from the conservatives of Leipzig, so he ventured a glance to the front row where the old lady was sitting, and was delighted to see her smiling with pleasure.” Boult does precisely the same thing in his own performance of the Fourth – albeit without jeopardising the exhilarating thrust and unswerving purposefulness of his conception. It is, indeed, a most gripping, strongly characterised interpretation, that great transition into the finale negotiated with unassuming authority and the closing pages paced to cumulative perfection.
Boult also reminisces about the experience of meeting Fanny Davies, herself a pupil of Clara Schumann, when they both served on the teaching staff of London’s Royal College of Music. “I took the opportunity of asking her some questions, notably about the right treatment of the last movement of the C major symphony and how far one should add dynamic marks to the rather scanty directions left by Schumann. ‘Come on, we’ll play it as a duet!’ was her answer, and before we were much older we had played all four symphonies, and I had had a wonderful lesson in interpretation.” He later describes how his doubts surrounding No 2’s finale “which looks, on paper, like a rather soulless procession of a somewhat aggravating one-bar figure with no particular rhyme or reason about it” were banished by Davies’s “gloriously convincing” treatment. “She played no two bars alike; the figure sprung to life, and above all became part of a sweeping line with a wealth of rhyme and reason urging it on.” You can, I think, hear all of this and more in Boult’s thrillingly fiery yet affectionately songful account (the slow movement is especially touching). True, the playing of the LPO both here and throughout the cycle is wanting in stylish finesse and sheer tonal clout – and there are a sprinkling of minor slips with which to contend – but no one could fail to respond to the immense zest and whole-hearted dedication Boult’s willing cohorts bring to the task in hand.
Elsewhere, the first movement of the ‘Rhenish’ shoots off like a rocket, yet Boult still manages to coax plenty of lyrical ardour from the subsidiary material. The remainder is less controversial. I like the genial sway of the Ländler, the demure restraint of the symphony’s centrepiece even more so, but the fourth movement’s nobly elevated tone is compromised by some slack ensemble and sour brass intonation. The finale is much better: lean, quick-witted and glinting with agreeable woodwind detail. That just leaves the ‘Spring’ Symphony, a keenly voiced, spontaneous-sounding affair, evincing the honest glow, generosity of spirit and meticulous concern for orchestral balance one associates with this great conductor.
As for the Berlioz overtures, Waverley is placed after the Second and Third Symphonies at the end of CD 2, with the other seven housed on CD 3. All are directed with a communicative flair, personable warmth and watchful integrity that more than compensate for the occasional scruffiness in execution. Certainly, there’s no shortage of electricity or playful swagger in Boult’s accounts of Béatrice et Bénédict, Les Francs-juges and Le Carnaval romain, though Le Corsaire can’t match Beecham’s famous 1958 recording with the RPO for giddy élan.
Let me conclude by saying that the presentation is first-class, with splendidly sage and informative annotations by Colin Anderson and Peter Bromley, and some nostalgic photos and artwork (including the sleeves of all six of the original American 12-inch stereo LPs on Westminster – one for each of the Schumann symphonies and the other two containing four Berlioz overtures apiece). Dare we now hope for the return of Boult’s marvellously invigorating November 1954 Brahms symphony cycle? And how about his Schubert ‘Great’ C major from those same Nixa-Westminster sessions (yet to be issued on CD)? In the meantime, this is a gem of a set and absolutely not to be missed.