Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Elgar: Enigma Variations

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BRAHMS Symphony No. 1. ELGAR Enigma Variations 1 Adrian Boult, cond; 1 George Thalben Ball (org); BBC SO ICA 5019 (78:21) Live: London 1 3/29/1971, 7/17/1976

& John Douglas Todd interviews Sir Adrian Boult (1974)

When EMI, at the instigation of producer Christopher Bishop, issued recordings of the four Brahms symphonies in the early 1970s, Sir Adrian Boult’s 20 years with the BBC and the steady broadcast reminders of the catholicity of his tastes and skills were well past. Bishop was troubled that the aging conductor’s reputation as an English music specialist, built on years of service to the composers of his homeland, had resulted in an insufficient recorded legacy of his art. The Austro-German and Russian Romantics had been an important part of his repertoire throughout a career that stretched back to his conducting debut with a professional orchestra in 1914. He had performed Bartók, Shostakovich, Mahler, and the Second Viennese School when most conductors wouldn’t.

The opportunity to address that presented itself when the always efficient Boult left open two sessions originally scheduled for the recording of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Brahms was the perfect choice, as he had been an early favorite, the Tragic Overture counting among the first recordings that Boult made in the early 1930s with his newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra. He had recorded the symphonies for Pye/Nixa in the 1950s (could First Hand Remasters make these a Volume 3?), and now thanks to a producer with vision, some of his last recordings were to be of Brahms, as well as Wagner and Schubert. Lucid, weighty but never heavy, dramatic without histrionics, Boult’s approach to Brahms was classical and objective in the style of Hans Richter and Brahms disciple Fritz Steinbach, both of whom he had heard perform. Ever the self-effacing (though hardly diffident) artist, Boult let the music speak for itself, and his skill at revealing important events without ever losing sight of the long line creates an ineffable sense of rightness in all of his Brahms recordings.

This is certainly true of this recording of the Brahms First Symphony from the conductor’s penultimate Proms season, but there is, in addition, an uncharacteristically stormy intensity. The brass, Boult’s favored horns in particular, respond with enthusiasm. The timpani drive the opening of the Un poco sustenuto with energy, and Boult builds the climax with a vigor that belies his 87 years. The Andante sostenuto is lilting, with enchanting, unsentimental solos from the oboe and violin. The horn soloist occasionally crosses the line into crudeness in the Adagio segue into the Allegro non troppo ma con brio finale, but the trombone/bassoon chorale is neatly balanced, the transition to the big tune delivers a breath-catching moment, and that noble melody is presented and developed with great spirit. Only the third movement is anything less than inspired, lacking, as did the 1973 recording, the full measure of gracefulness. Still, it is a wonderful reading of the work, most deserving the roar of approval that greets its conclusion.

Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations was also a staple of Boult’s repertoire, admired by him even when he did not care for others of the composer’s creations. Of course, he came to revere Elgar’s work and to become one of the composer’s leading exponents. The Enigma Variations has been recorded many times, and more than a few times quite well. Boult recorded the work at least four times. Each is an exemplar of this conductor’s art, but never more so than in this 1971 live performance. In it, Boult captures Elgar’s essential yearning melancholy, without slighting the high spirits or the humor. Heeding again Richter’s example, he maintains the arch of the work, creating a unity where many offer a series of vignettes, and still, within that flow, sharply drawing every characterization. The tone is autumnal, though the tempos remain fairly swift. The C.A.E portrait of Elgar’s wife is restrained but affecting. The Nimrod variation is beautifully paced, the heart-stopping climax perfectly judged. Dr. George Sinclair sends his bulldog splashing into the river most amusingly, Dora Penny stutters charmingly, Lady Mary Lygon’s leave-taking is appropriately bittersweet, and the final E.D.U. variation is all nobility and optimism, somewhat larger in scale than usual with the inclusion of the optional organ part suggested by friend A. J. Jaeger (Nimod).

Recommendation? Easy: No admirer of this conductor or student of the conductor’s art will want to be without this marvelous release. The sound is good, yielding little to the cavernous space of Royal Albert Hall. The playing isn’t perfectly tidy, but certainly not bad for one-off recordings. In any case, technical perfection was never as important to Boult as finding the heart of the work. That he achieves twice here.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

"...These are fine, wise performances, which act as welcome supplements to Sir Adrian’s studio versions of these works. Even if you have those recordings this CD is well worth your attention for the frisson of a live occasion is definitely present. The recordings have come up pretty well and there’s a characteristically good note by Boult’s biographer, Michael Kennedy."

- John Quinn, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ICAC 5019

  • UPC: 5060244550193

  • Label: ICA Classics

  • Composer: Johannes Brahms, Sir Edward Elgar, Spoken Word

  • Conductor: Sir Adrian Boult

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Sir George Thalben-Ball