Brahms: Symphony No 3; Elgar: Symphony No 1 / Boult

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BRAHMS Symphony No. 3 1. ELGAR Symphony No. 1 2 Adrian Boult, cond; BBC SO ICA 5063 (81:15) Live: Royal Albert Hall 1 8/6/1977, 2 7/28/1976

These performances come from late in Adrian Boult’s career—he died in 1983—and, if I’m not mistaken, this is their first appearance on CD. This is also Boult’s only live Brahms Third to be captured on record, though he recorded two complete studio Brahms symphony cycles in the 1950s and the early 1970s, both with the London Philharmonic, though the orchestra on the earlier set, which circulated on the Pye Nixa label, was identified by the pseudonym Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra.

Boult had a connection to Brahms, albeit an indirect one, through his teacher, the famous conductor Arthur Nikisch. Boult’s association with Elgar, however, was more immediate and personal. Boult was still a schoolboy when he first met Elgar in the early 1900s, but the youth turned conductor became a passionate advocate for Elgar’s music, and the two men maintained contact up until Elgar’s death in 1934. Boult recorded Elgar’s two symphonies a number of times, mainly in the late 1960s with the LPO on Lyrita and nearly a decade later, also with the LPO, on HMV. Arthur Lintgen reviewed the 1968 Lyrita set in Fanfare 31:3. The current performance of the First Symphony, obviously with a different orchestra, is neither that version nor the 1977 studio made HMV recording.

Boult’s Brahms at the Proms is not at all what I would have expected. Despite a first-movement tempo slightly to the slow side of the composer’s allegro con brio , the performance, with exposition repeat, is quite powerful. This is no patrician English gentleman’s Brahms led by an age-mellowed conductor. Boult’s conception of the score is quite dramatic, and in passages of volcanic upheaval it can be decidedly eruptive. The stereo sound is excellent, and except for some minor rustling between movements, the audience is silent. I particularly like the way, beginning at bar 20 in the last movement, Boult separates and leans into each note of the quarter-note triplets. It lends an extra ominous portent to the violent outburst we know is coming 10 bars later. This is a very appealing performance of Brahms’s most enigmatic symphony, and the one that I’ve always believed is the most difficult to bring off.

Expectations are confounded by Boult’s Elgar. Here I would have anticipated a more naturally flowing, fluent, and idiomatically English reading from the conductor than the one we get. Instead, Boult imperils the score by ignoring the composer’s semplice qualifier. The result is a ponderous opening more ceremonious than ceremonial. Boult somehow turns this magnificent, stately affair into something pretentious and pompous. I was really quite surprised.

There’s little improvement in the symphony’s second movement, which wants to be a lighter scherzo than Boult’s heavy hammering makes it. It sounds like Fafner and Fasolt slugging it out in fast-forward. Curiously, in comparing Boult’s reading to one of my longstanding favorites, André Previn conducting the Royal Philharmonic on a 1985 Philips CD, I find that Boult is actually faster, and by no small amount, in every movement but the second—17: 29, 7:07, 9:04, 11:25 vs. 19:26, 6:52, 12:58, 12:27—yet it’s Previn who sounds less lumbering and less laborious. Perhaps it was just an off night for Boult at the Proms, or more likely, perhaps, I’m just so conditioned to a different take on the piece that Boult’s doesn’t sit quite right with me. Given his closeness to Elgar, it may be that it’s Boult who has the more proper measure of the score.

In any case, the BBC Symphony Orchestra plays its heart out for him, and the recording captures the wide dynamic range of the score while managing to untangle its complex multilayered strands.

Clearly, this is recommended to all Boult fans and, I’d venture, to anyone wanting really excellent live recordings of these two works.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ICAC 5063

  • UPC: 5060244550636

  • Label: ICA Classics

  • Composer: Johannes Brahms, Sir Edward Elgar

  • Conductor: Sir Adrian Boult

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC Symphony Orchestra


  1. Symphony no 3 in F major, Op. 90

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: BBC Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Sir Adrian Boult

  2. Symphony no 1 in A flat major, Op. 55

    Composer: Sir Edward Elgar

    Ensemble: BBC Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Sir Adrian Boult