Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 2.
Overture and Venusberg Music
Adrian Boult, cond; BBC SO &
ICA 5106 (74:23) Live: London 7/24/1977,
Despite a youthful antipathy for the music of Elgar, Adrian Boult became arguably his most eloquent proponent, not least in the second of his two completed symphonies. While not forgetting the very different advocacy of such luminaries as Barbirolli, Solti, Haitink, and others whom collectors will hold as favorites, Boult seemed particularly sensitive to this Symphony’s potent blend of despair, nostalgia, passion, and Edwardian nobility of expression. Coming back to his recordings after listening to those of other interpreters, one is immediately struck by the ease with which the music unfolds and makes its effect under his direction. Apparently, this was true from his first performance of the work in 1920. Elgar had premiered the Second Symphony in 1911, and the response, while positive, was nothing like the enthusiasm that had greeted the First. It was Boult’s performance which established the later work, occasioning both a letter of appreciation from the mortally ill Lady Alice Elgar describing the “frantic enthusiasm” with which his performance was greeted and Elgar’s declaration, reproduced on the front of this release, that “I feel that my reputation in the future is safe in your hands.” So it has proved.
Boult recorded the Symphony commercially five times: in 1944, 1956, 1963, 1968, and 1975–76. He performed it numerous times during a long career. This, however, is something special. The live performance preserved on this disc was the last time Boult conducted this work, and it was in a concert from the conductor’s last Proms season. By this time, the 88-year old conductor was only leading parts of concerts, and his physical appearance onstage was decidedly feeble. Still, contemporary accounts of this and other concerts describe how creating the music galvanized him, and one can certainly hear that here. After a rather ragged start, Boult launches into a remarkably incandescent account of this score. There are moments of untidiness, and a controversially impatient tempo for the
, but taken as a whole, this is a capstone to a distinguished series of recordings and a fitting tribute to the artist.
I am still uncertain what to make of the second movement. Is this fast tempo—at 12:07, the quickest traversal of the funereal
I know—a miscalculation or a brilliant rethinking of the emotional core of the Symphony? However it came about, Boult and his musicians mold Elgar’s memorial tribute to its dedicatee Edward VII (as well as, likely, the composer’s close friend Alfred Rodewald) into a statement as much courageous as bereft. The other movements are similarly intense, with tempos comparable, with the exception of a slower Rondo, to the other recording Boult made with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1944 at the age of 55. Some may miss the nuances and more autumnal quality of the last studio recording made a year or so earlier, or the nearly perfect balance of drama and nostalgia of the stereo 1956 Nixa/Westminster (Regis)—my personal favorite and the recording this most resembles in style if not pacing—but this has its own powerful appeal beyond its historical value.
The recording of the Overture and Venusberg Music from Wagner’s
only adds to that appeal. Boult had planned, at one time, to be an opera conductor. Life took a different turn, and by the time he recorded four LPs of Wagner for EMI in the 1970s many were surprised at his skill in this repertoire. He had hoped, in that series, to record some vocal excerpts. That did not happen, and this is currently the only Boult-led Wagner with any voices, in this case the excellent BBC Chorus. As with the Elgar, the performance has a vitality that belies Boult’s age—a mere 79 then—and shows again the extra drama he achieved in live concerts.
The sound is diffuse, as would be expected from the time and venue, but quite listenable. It is a disc every devoted Boult fan and/or Elgarian should explore.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames