- Written by Richard Freed Richard Freed
- Category: Richard Freed's "Keepers" Richard Freed's "Keepers"
- Created: 01 July 2012 01 July 2012
This feature, "Keepers," was launched, about eight years ago, with a celebration of the perdurable glories of Decca’s 1961 recording of the Ballet Music from Gustav Holst’s opera The Perfect Fool, in which Sir Adrian Boult conducted the London Philharmonic -- as he had done in an only slightly earlier monophonic recording for the same label. Just now that earlier recording has turned up on CD, the performance virtually indistinguishable from the stereo remake, but the sound quality simply overwhelmed by the two-channel successor. While this brief sequence of three dances is certainly not the greatest music ever written, Boult realized, as no other conductor quite did, its amazing effectiveness as a little "concerto for orchestra," in which every section gets to strut its stuff, and his stereo version remains an outstanding illustration of how a recording can appear to be designed to accommodate and exploit not only a particular piece of music, but a particular performance of it as well.
Rarely had all these optimal circumstances come together as they did in that recording. It is 51 years old now, but still -- in Decca’s several reissues -- "demonstration class." A couple of years ago some further Boult material, also with the LPO, which happens to be a few years older still, was brought back, not by its originating label, but by First Hand, a recently created British company devoted to revivifying valuable recordings, not on a grand scale in terms of numerous releases, but achieving results that are very grand indeed, and in this case not only surpassing the realism of Boult’s previous recordings, but at least matching that of his finest subsequent ones. In so doing, First Hand has also provided a powerful reminder of generally unacknowledged -- or in any event under-acknowledged -- stature of this remarkable conductor.
At this point, it seems appropriate to mention the curious disconnect between Boult’s stature as a conductor and the little recognition his name commands now. He had a very long and remarkably productive life (1889-1983). As a young man, he was able to attend concerts and rehearsals of the legendary Arthur Nikisch in Germany, and he developed an openness to all kinds of music, by his own contemporaries and the great masters of the past, by his compatriots and by composers in America as well as throughout Europe. In 1930 he became the first conductor of the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra, with which he recorded and toured widely. He conducted at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and he conducted an American orchestra or two as a guest. With the BBC SO, and later with the other big London orchestras and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, he made recordings for HMV (EMI) and Decca -- as well as occasionally for Everest, Vanguard and other smaller labels -- that were impressive for their sheer number, and no less for their consistent musical excellence.
Boult never became a superstar; he was content to be a musician. He knew how to make his authority felt by his musicians, but he did absolutely nothing to call attention to himself. He did not throw tantrums, he did not choreograph his movements on the podium, and he never failed to show respect to both the music he performed and the musicians who responded so splendidly to his clearly expressed wishes. Oscar Levant, in his 1940 book A Smattering of Ignorance, described Pierre Monteux as "a more amiable [Fritz] Reiner." We might say the same of Boult, who actually had a broader concert repertory than either of those very distinguished colleagues, as well as a much larger and more diversified discography. In a career that ended only as he completed his ninth decade of life, Boult was a steadfast champion of contemporary music, and an insightful interpreter of the great classics, but the recording companies, and hence the public, tended to categorize him as a specialist in British music. That, he surely was, with perhaps no peer until the arrival of his protégé Vernon Handley, but he was no less persuasive in the works of Bartók and Rimsky-Korsakov and Brahms and Berlioz. Both EMI and Decca, however, more or less decreed a limitation of his activity in the recording studio to the British repertory, the few exceptions being confined mostly to recordings of concertos with famous soloists. While he did record a broader repertory with the BBC SO in the 78rpm era, he tended to be typecast after the war, by both EMI and Decca. It was only toward the end of his career that EMI startled the world -- and probably Sir Adrian himself -- by recording him conducting several LPs of Wagnerian excerpts with three of London’s top orchestras.
One of the smaller companies for which Boult recorded in the 1950s was the short-lived but important American label Westminster, first with his own London Philharmonic (which for contractual reasons was billed as the "Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra of London") and subsequently in a few sessions with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. His first releases on Westminster, with the disguised LPO, were Holst’s suite The Planets, Walton’s oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast, and two barely known Vaughan Williams titles: the ballet suite Old King Cole, and the early "Aristophanic Suite" of incidental music for the ancient dramatist’s comedy The Wasps. Boult had presided over the first performance of The Planets; he recorded the work on 78s with his BBC SO, and subsequently remade it three times in stereo, but the 1953 version was the finest of his five recorded performances of the work, and, musically, it remains the most persuasive ever give the permanence of recording. (That recording has been reissued recently, on the same CD as the aforementioned monophonic Perfect Fool, and will be discussed at the end of this article.)
Westminster, in its brief relationship with Boult (actually a collaborative one with the British label Nixa), showed itself far more imaginative in its repertory choices than the big companies had been. He did make some memorable recordings of works by Elgar, Walton, and Britten, but he also recorded all the symphonies of Brahms, with several of that composer’s shorter works; several works of Mendelssohn, and, in Vienna, some Mozart as well as the first of his three stereophonic remakes of The Planets. In some incredibly productive sessions in London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall, on 12 days in August 1956, he taped three major Elgar works, four by Britten, Walton’s First Symphony, all four symphonies of Schumann, and all eight of Berlioz’s overtures. Nobody had any real idea of how brilliant these recordings were until just two years ago, when they were brought back, with unimaginably improved sound, by First Hand.
That these recordings even survived to be remastered in the early years of our century is itself a bit of a wonder. Westminster ceased to exist in 1965, and at about the same time Nixa was acquired by another British company, Pye, which issued some of the Boult items on LP. Many of Westminster’s own recordings were acquired by the American company MCA, which eventually issued some of them on CD under the Millennium Classics label. Early in the CD era, some of Boult’s Pye-Nixa materials were reissued on Nixa CDs by Precision Records and Tape Ltd., and then the Pye material was acquired by EMI, which brought out some of it in a Pye-EMI series. Still later, the Westminster tapes passed into the hands of Deutsche Grammophon, which circulated a few gems under the original label -- Hermann Scherchen’s famous monophonic recordings of Haydn symphonies, Pierre Monteux’s stereophonic Berlioz Roméo et Juliette, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Artur Rodzinski’s Royal Philharmonic Tchaikovsky (a complete Nutcracker, the Fourth Symphony, the Violin Concerto with Erica Morini, etc.). Boult was barely a presence in any of these reissue projects; what First Hand brought out in 2010 does not represent a complete roster of his Westminster recordings, but is served up in unimaginably improved sound. In the First Hand treatment, these 1956 recordings, produced by Kurt List, with Herbert Zeithammer and Mario Mizzaro doing the engineering, are sonically competitive with any later ones of the same works.
While Westminster initially issued these recordings in mono, they were actually taped only in stereo, and the two tracks had to be combined for the monophonic LPs. When the stereo editions appeared (some of them after considerable delay), they made quite an impression, but barely hinted at what the First Hand CDs now deliver. They are packaged in two three-disc sets -- one containing the British works (FHR06), the other the Schumann and Berlioz (FHR07) -- the packaging so cleverly designed that even with the abundant documentation each set takes up no more shelf space than a single conventional jewel case. Here is the complete line-up of titles:
Walton: Symphony No.1
Elgar: Symphony No.2; Falstaff; Cockaigne Overture
Britten: Peter Grimes -- Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia; The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Matinées musicales; Soirées musicales
Schumann: Symphonies Nos.1-4
Berlioz: Overtures: Roman Carnival, Béatrice et Bénédict; Benvenuto Cellini; Les Francs-Juges; King Lear; Le Corsair; Waverley; Rob Roy
For me, the outstanding showpieces among these six CDs are the shortest of the Elgar and Britten works. Boult recorded so much Elgar, and many of the titles more than once. He remade the Cockaigne Overture in 1971 for EMI, with the same orchestra, but neither the sound nor the performance itself in that remake is quite as vivid as its amazing 1956 predecessor. There is a very grand episode in the middle of the piece -- a rather "unbuttoned" romp for the entire orchestra, from ca. 05:50 to 07:25 -- that is as impressive here as Decca’s stereo Perfect Fool. It does what a good recording is supposed to do: give the music its very best chance at making itself as persuasive as possible, in both detail and overall thrust, and on its own terms. Every part of the orchestra -- from tambourine and piccolo to burnished brass and silken strings -- emerges in its full character, and in superb balance with the rest of the orchestra.
Although Boult was far less identified with the music of Benjamin Britten than that of the numerous other British composers he championed, the Britten items here are absolute knockouts that show him at the peak of his interpretive powers and suggest a sort of peak in respect to personal enjoyment of his assignment as well -- particularly the two little suites of arrangements of pieces by Rossini: the early Soirées musicales and the somewhat later Matinées musicales. Boult, as so often in performing lighter music, brings out every detail with an unforced charm perfectly suited to the sparkling content -- and how it all does sparkle here, in what may be the sonic high point of these consistently impressive sonic refurbishments. The Peter Grimes material is realized with similar conviction, and the authoritative realization of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is presented twice: once, as on the earlier EMI reissue, in mono, with the optional narration spoken by Boult himself in the most conversational, uncondescending way, and with each variation in a track of its own, and once in stereo on a single track, without the narration.
Of the two other Elgar works, the seldom heard symphonic study Falstaff (which had had only one previous recording, also by Boult, who was to record it once more in 1973), also makes a powerful impression here, both musically and sonically. Only the Second Symphony is marred by some unsteadiness in the orchestra; both of Boult’s subsequent recordings of this work, made under far less demanding conditions, are superior in this respect, but not sonically. This account of the Walton Symphony, though, was a powerful introduction to the work when it first appeared, and still holds its own pretty comfortably.
The Berlioz overtures are as revelatory as Elgar’s Cockaigne. The lesser-known ones in particular have long been regarded as belonging to the various Berlioz "specialists" -- but Boult performed all of them with some frequency, and before the war had recorded the early, seldom heard King Lear and Judges of the Secret Court (Les Francs-Juges) with the BBC SO. All eight of them show him to have had a clear and enthusiastic grasp of the idiom, and to have successfully and fully conveyed it to his troops. The very early and very seldom heard Waverley, with its tricky syncopated section, is, like so much of Boult’s work, simply as authoritative as could be, with its excitement unleashed from the score itself rather than laid on from outside.
That is the sort of total identification Boult was able to take on so effortlessly, with any and all of the music he performed, as demonstrated further in his similarly idiomatic, similarly persuasive accounts of the Schumann symphonies. Like the Elgar Second in the other First Hand set, these works have some flaws in the orchestra’s execution, but they fade into meaninglessness in the face of Boult’s overall understanding of them -- which is exhibited further in the form of his own detailed observations on these four works, printed in full in the excellent documentary material, which also gives details on the sources used for the remastering that belies the age of these recordings.
To be sure, there is no shortage of excellent recordings of the Schumann symphonies, and Boult’s own subsequent recordings of the Elgar Second are superior to the one revived here, but, together with the outstanding performances of the 15 other works in these sets, the sonic quality of these revivals is very much the point. Who would have imagined these 1956 recordings could offer so much pleasure in the impact of their stunningly realistic sound? With these sets, First Hand has done honor to an underacknowledged major conductor, and, by no means incidentally, to the splendid production team that made these recordings 56 years ago -- and created an eagerness for more restorations from this source.
Early in this article I mentioned a recent reissue of some of Boult’s monophonic material. It’s also with the London Philharmonic, on a British label new to me: Heritage (HTGCD 233), and it comprises three works: the outstanding 1953 Westminster recording of Holst’s large suite The Planets and two shorter pieces recorded for Decca the following year: The Perfect Fool, mentioned in my first paragraph, and Sir Arnold Bax’s dramatic tone poem Tintagel. The transfers are pretty good, though I think the one Michael Dutton made of The Planets for PRT’s Nixa CD in1989 (NIXCD 6013) is more clearly defined in such sections as the opening Mars and the penultimate Uranus (in which not even Boult himself ever quite matched the swaggering momentum he achieved in this truly legendary recording). The 1954 performance of The Perfect Fool, as already stated, is virtually identical with the 1961 remake, but the latter, with its stunning realism and breadth, is what brought this piece to life to a degree that may never be duplicated.
But in Tintagel, as in his 1953 recording of The Planets, Boult achieved an all-surpassing realization of the music which neither he himself nor any other conductor quite matched in a subsequent recording. His stereophonic remake for Lyrita (the label for which he recorded his "definitive" accounts of the two Elgar symphonies) is still a quite good performance by any standards, and the sound is undeniably superior, but the performance Decca taped in 1954, in spite of the less spacious sonics, renders that consideration rather beside the point. This is simply one of the most sweepingly impassioned performances of any music ever committed to the permanency of recording. The incredibly effective climaxes, one after another, each more intense than the last, may bring to mind Wilhelm Furtwängler’s famous pre-war recording of the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde -- actually a pertinent comparison, since both works deal, in their totally different ways, with the same legend. Bax, in fact, called attention in his score to an actual quotation from the Wagner opera. (Bax was an inveterate borrower, but he was always forthright about it: in the scores of some of his symphonies he called attention to his use of material from the works of Sibelius.)
So yes, I would recommend the Heritage CD for the Bax alone; it is that compelling. But I would hope that First Hand would turn its attention now to Boult’s monophonic material for Westminster/Nixa: at least The Planets and the similarly peerless account of Walton’s oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. That would require two CDs, which even without additional music would be very full value -- but those discs might be filled out with the two Vaughan Williams suites mentioned above.
. . . Richard Freed