You are reading the older HTML site

Positive Feedback ISSUE 39
september/october 2008


Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Legends
by Stephen Francis Vasta


Schubert, Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 ("Unfinished"); Bizet: Jeux d'enfants; Ravel: Daphnis et Chloë: Suite No. 2; Sibelius Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105* Philharmonia Orchestra, *Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult. BBC Legends BBCL 4039-2 (A.D.D.).  TT: 74.56

Commercial discographies, naturally biased towards repertoire that the record companies consider "marketable," can be misleading, inaccurately skewed perhaps towards some repertoire niche or another. Were you to know the work of Sir Adrian Boult, for example, entirely from his late-career EMI recordings, you might assume he devoted himself more or less exclusively to British composers—Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and lesser luminaries like Parry and Stanford (as well as Brahms, treated in some British musical circles as an Elgarian antecedent). Only veteran or omnivorous collectors will remember the range of composers, from Beethoven to Mahler, covered by the conductor's earlier Pye and Everest recordings.

Neither does the apparently casual manner of the octogenarian Boult offer a complete picture of his conducting. His 1964 Proms performance of Schubert's Unfinished, in fact, is anything but casual. The Weingartner-Nikisch influences are everywhere in the first movement: in the weighty, Germanic intoning of the introductory phrase (the basses turning a bit sclerotic on the lowest notes); in the stark accenting of the first theme-group; in  the 'cellos' gravely lyrical voicing of the second. The simple, but still serious, voicing of the opening of the Andante provides a lovely respite, set off by the turbulent development sections. And, while one didn't necessarily think of Boult as a "sound" conductor, the layering of textures is attractive here, with full-throated horns making a prominent contribution.

The conductor proves competent but not always comfortable in the Bizet and Ravel items—indeed, I can't think of any commercial Boult recordings of French repertoire, unless some early Pye things didn't make it Stateside. This lively, musical rendition of Jeux d'enfants wants lightness and dexterity. The orchestra's way of banging into tuttis, whether in punctuating chords or chugging along in the closing Galop—which doesn't immediately settle in -- is big and unsubtle. The climax of the Duo (Petit mari, petit femme) is affecting, almost impassioned, and perhaps a bit out of scale for a suite entitled "children's toys," after all.

In the Daphnis selection, the Lever du jour surges and ebbs appropriately, in a way we don't expect from the fastidious Boult, but the other two movements are mildly exceptionable on stylistic grounds. The Pantomime's extended flute solo is deft but not liquid, lacking mystery. The Danse génèrale builds effectively, but without any hint of Dionysian frenzy—you're a bit too conscious of the mechanics of the process.

But then we get another surprise—though perhaps Boult's Sibelius sympathies shouldn't surprise us at all. The British and Nordic musical temperaments share a similar clarity and reserve, and conductors from Anthony Collins and Sir Thomas Beecham in the mono era to Sir Simon Rattle today have addressed the Finn's chilly lyric idiom with varying degrees of expertise. This performance of the one-movement Seventh Symphony, drawn from a March 1963 Royal Festival Hall concert, is one of the best I've heard: Boult gives both the cantabile and the more nervous motifs breathing room without overdoing the Romantic rhetoric, while his direct, unfussy pacing maintains smooth progress from one episode to the next. The woodwinds, led by the oboe, paint a hard, uncompromising landscape at 6:24; the trombone solo at 9:28 is suitably plangent; and the lyrical motifs at 11:16 bring some joy into the prevailing bleakness. Some passing bits of scrambled ensemble among the accompaniments don't hurt anything, though this sort of laissez-faire carelessness would crop up more frequently in the conductor's later recordings.

Worth having for the outstanding Schubert and Sibelius. Sound quality, by the way, is good broadcast stereo—a bit "canned" in the Sibelius, but very clear and present.