Doubtless future generations of VW adherents will replay the game of swings and roundabouts that emerges every time one contrasts the two symphonic cycles left by Adrian Boult. The first was in mono for Decca beginning in the early 1950s, and the second for EMI in stereo, starting in 1968. If one has Belart’s quite vivid 1996 transfers of that first cycle [461 442-2] one has a box of enduring worth with performances of taut drama. The later cycle, here repackaged in the context of Boult’s complete EMI VW recordings, offers many valuable opportunities to understand and appreciate Boult’s subtly modified view of the canon.
Naturally the sound quality will loom large. Indeed for some
people, it will largely eclipse interpretative matters. Taking those further, sound obsessives wouldn’t much care for 1968 recordings in any case, nourishing only the latest test case in ultimate reproduction. For the rest of us, it’s a hugely rewarding chance to get to grips with these major undertakings. It’s not really a question of tempi. It would be tedious indeed to tabulate the timings and measure out performances by the minute and second. Boult is certainly not always slower in his stereo cycle; not by a long chalk. It’s rather more a question of intensity.
Sea Symphony is actually slightly tauter in 1968 than in the Decca traversal. His soloists back then were the admirable Isobel Baillie and John Cameron, whom I happen, just, to prefer to Sheila Armstrong and John Carol Case. There’s an extra degree of communicative drama in the Decca, fine though the EMI is. Boult first conducted
A London Symphony in 1918, and in between these two recordings seems slightly to have rethought his approach to the first two movements. He is more expansive in the opening movement in 1971 but significantly faster in the
Lento second movement. Lovers of the symphony won’t need reminding of Richard Hickox’s pioneering recording of the original 1913 version. Seriously hardcore collectors will need Eugene Goossens version of the 1920 edition, made in Cincinnati and once available on Biddulph [WHL016], which is an easier listen, but is not more important historically than Dan Godfrey’s pioneering recording of the 1920 version, made in 1925, and available on Symposium 1377.
Pastoral (with the New Philharmonia, not LPO) receives beautiful recordings, complementary in strengths. He takes a little more time in the Decca but both finales offer gripping symphonic summations and the playing is fine throughout in both discs. Margaret Ritchie sings in the earlier of the two, Margaret Price in the stereo remake. Interestingly, to show Boult’s conducting was perhaps more fluid interpretatively than is often thought - by which I don’t mean necessarily more intense live than in the studio, though that was often the case too - the live 1972 performance he gave in Studio 1 Maida Vale for the BBC with its Symphony Orchestra, and with soprano Valerie Hill, reminds me a touch more of the Decca of two decades before than the more recent EMI [BBC Radio Classics 15656 91642].
Bernstein, Mitropoulos, and Stokowski: there’s something for everyone when it comes to No.4. Add the composer himself in his famous recording, the disinterred Barbirolli and then add the two Boults and you have pretty much all you need, if you fancy ‘historic’ recordings. Boult remained pretty consistent, though his earlier recording’s opening movement is elemental in its power, even more so than the stereo remake. The Decca recording is a little brittle but certainly nothing can efface Boult’s gripping command here. Again this is with the New Philharmonia. Except for the finale, where he is tangibly a bit terser, No. 5 is just that shade slower in 1969 but not much less moving. The wind playing in the
Romanza is necessarily more vivid because of the recording quality as is, too, the veiled string tone. I wouldn’t be without his first thoughts though.
Boult recorded the Sixth on 78s in 1949-50 [Dutton CDBP9703], with the original and revised versions of the Scherzo, following it with his Decca LP. It’s here too, so you needn’t go to the Dutton if you want to acquire it. Boult tightened both the
Moderato second movement and the numbing Epilogue in his 1967 New Philharmonia recording when compared to the Decca, but his 1949 EMI 78 had an even faster
Epilogue. As if to show that nothing is in limbo when it comes to VW-Boult studies, the conductor’s August 1972 live Prom performance shaves a full two minutes off the Decca
Epilogue alone, aligning it to Boult’s later preferred speed. Boult is even more visceral in that Prom in the opening movement with his old orchestra, the BBC Symphony. It can be found coupled with No.3 in the BBC disc noted above.
I suspect one performance that some will prefer over another is that of the Decca
Sinfonia Antartica. The Decca has superscriptions spoken by John Gielgud and the performance is masterly from beginning to end; conducting of a calibre not often encountered in this work. Boult is only marginally less atmospheric in 1968 and he has Norma Burrowes where earlier he had Margaret Ritchie once again. This is a matter of tempi and tempo relationships, because he is significantly tighter in the remake to an extent that is quite unusual in his discography. Some, therefore, may prefer this ‘symphonic tautness’ to the more filmic latitude of the Decca. I love both, but in this case I tend toward the wide-open spaces of the Decca. Symphony No.8 may also divide loyalties. The Decca is in 1956 stereo - the only one of the cycle to be thus recorded, given that he didn’t record No.9 for Decca, only for Everest. The Decca No.8 is also beautifully performed with a good tonal response from the LPO fiddles. The 1969 version is very similar in outline, but perhaps fractionally less compelling expressively. This leaves the field to the EMI Ninth, recorded in December 1969, which should certainly be heard in conjunction with the equally excellent Everest traversal [EVC 9001] which was recorded about seven months after the composer’s death.
The symphonies are the spine of this 13-CD boxed set. The smaller items are all present. Hugh Bean’s lovely 1967
Lark Ascending is here but so is the earlier 1952 recording with Jean Pougnet with his faster vibrato. I rather prefer Iona Brown’s first recording, with Neville Marriner, to both, but it’s a delight to have the two coupled in this way. There are two recordings of the
Serenade to Music. The first was made in 1951 in the Royal Festival Hall in the choral version - an interesting occasion, as it was the hall’s opening; this has never been released on CD before - whilst the 1969 remake is heard with the 16 solo singers. The
Tallis Fantasia can also be admired in both the 1940 and 1975 versions, whilst
Job is also subject to two recordings, namely the famous 1946 78 set and Boult’s 1970 stereo. Vronsky and Babin join the LPO and Boult for a splendid traversal of the problematic (is it problematic?) Concerto in C, for two pianos. The
Partita for double string orchestra and
Concerto Grosso both derive from 1975 sessions.
Flos campi (my computer just wrote the name of that well-known seaside baud, Flo Scampi) is heard with violist William Primrose in superb form in 1946.
One of VW’s choral masterpieces is
Dona Nobis Pacem where the soloists are Armstrong and Carol Case (April 1973). VW’s own live 1936 performance is even faster and can be heard on SOMM CD071, coupled with part of a Prom concert in 1952 where the composer conducted his Fifth Symphony.
The Song of Thanksgiving, which had earlier been known as
Thanksgiving for Victory was sung by Betty Dolemore with narrator Robert Speaight in 1951. There’s an earlier viscerally exciting Boult performance, with that lovely soprano Elsie Suddaby and narrator Valentine ‘The Man in Black’ Dyall, once available on Intaglio INCD7571. Pianist Peter Katin and the LPO Choir join to produce a stirring
Fantasia (quasi variazione) on the Old 104
th. Menuhin’s 1952 mono performance of the
Concerto accademico - or Violin Concerto in D minor as it really should always be called, if for no other reason than to stop people shying away from it - is here, though it was shelved when recorded and not released for very many years. Several smaller pieces will afford great pleasure, not least
The Wasps suite,
Toward the Unknown Region and the
Norfolk Rhapsody No.1.
The Pilgrim’s Progress has been revived on stage recently, to mixed reviews. For those who wish to listen, Boult’s 1972 recording occupies the last two CDs in this 13-CD box. It has a vast cast-list of some of the best-known singers in Britain at the time. It’s salutary to be reminded that this was Boult’s only opera recording. The rehearsal segments that are included last around 27 minutes and have been issued previously but they are valuable for illustrating the conductor’s patient, jovial but very occasionally irascible industry.
There’s a modestly sized booklet with an essay and full discographical details. The transfers are not new. They date from 1986 to 1992, with the exception of the 1951
Serenade to Music and the 1940
Tallis Fantasia which were made in 2013; the latter is a bit muddy for my own tastes.
It seems superfluous to recommend this box. It contains around 17 hours of Boult’s VW. Many of these recordings are amongst the very best you will hear. Above it, the box offers a concentrated focus on one of the composer’s most devoted exponents, a man who premiered three of the symphonies, and who remained an artistic partner
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International