Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 8, Job / Boult

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphony No. 8. Job Adrian Boult, cond; London PO ICA ICAD 5037 (DVD: 73:05) Live: London 12/10/1972

To my knowledge, this is the first time this entire concert has been issued intact. Previously the Eighth Symphony appeared on a DVD (now out of print) with a performance from a concert eight months earlier of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with these same forces and violinist Nathan Milstein. That disc was given a very tepid review by Jerry Dubins in Fanfare 31: 1, criticizing the Beethoven as “off skew” due to intonation lapses by Milstein and lack of proper synchronization between the audio and visual tracks, and a “solid but less than rafter-ringing” rendition of the Eighth Symphony. Here the symphony opens the concert, given to mark the centenary of the composer’s birth. While I would agree that it does not equal Boult’s own studio recording with the same orchestra for EMI made almost four years before, it is still an estimable reading in Boult’s distinctive style, which in this particular work is far more low-key and introspective than in the hands of some other conductors. A significant factor in the lesser degree of impact is the recorded perspective, which is rather distant; even turning up the volume knob on my stereo receiver could not give it a presence equal to the studio version. A remarkable feature is that this performance differs notably in conception from that set down by EMI, as can be seen by the respective timings—11:09, 3:55, 8:35, and 4:44 for the studio account versus 10:44, 4:11, 7:26, and 5:47 here, with the 10:44 of the first movement including almost a minute of introductory applause. The change in proportions—significantly faster in the first and third movements, and markedly slower in the fourth—gives the piece a rather different feel, though even after several hearings I am not sure how to describe it, as the variations between the two do not follow a consistent pattern. That there is a substantial difference is a sufficient point of interest in and of itself for admirers of this conductor’s art.

With Job the competition between the 1970 EMI studio version and this live performance is much closer; the overall timings and conceptions of the two are virtually identical, and here the live performance has more presence. This video version does offer one advantage its studio counterpart lacks; at the start of each section, it displays for several seconds the corresponding (and striking) drawings from William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job that inspired the composer. Boult had a unique and authoritative association with this work; in 1934 the composer dedicated the work to him, and he made four studio recordings of it before any other conductor made even one. That alone would make this an invaluable historical document; that value is increased by the fact that, apart from the aforementioned Beethoven concerto and a Beethoven romance for violin and orchestra with Yehudi Menuhin, this disc contains what are to my knowledge the only commercially released filmed performances of the man who ranks alongside Thomas Beecham as one of the two greatest British conductors of the last century.

The film quality itself is excellent for its vintage; images and colors are as sharp and clear as the analog film technology of the periods allows, and there are no signs of film deterioration. Camerawork is discreet, appropriate in focus, and free from the jittery itch of some current film producers to jump about every few seconds. Boult himself, 83 at the time, comes on stage slowly but not at all stiffly. Like Charles Munch he favors a fishing-pole length baton, but unlike the French maestro his movements are restrained, economical, and graceful rather than feverishly energetic, the very image of English patrician nobility. But do not mistake a lack of theatrical demonstrativeness for artistic dullness; this is music-making of great integrity and conviction. To fans of Vaughan Williams and Boult alike, this release is unhesitatingly recommended, particularly for the fine account of Job.

FANFARE: James A. Altena

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ICAD 5037

  • UPC: 5060244550377

  • Label: ICA Classics

  • Composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams

  • Conductor: Sir Adrian Boult

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: London Philharmonic Orchestra