Classical Reissue Reviews

Sir Adrian Boult = ELGAR: Symphony No. 2 in E-flat Major; WAGNER: Ov. and Venusberg Music – BBC Chorus/ BBC Sym. Orch./ Sir Adrian Boult – ICA Classic.

Elgar and Wagner realized in grand style by Sir Adrian Boult in live and studio performance, here re-united with the BBC ensemble he had led thirty years prior.

Published on October 21, 2013

Sir Adrian Boult = ELGAR: Symphony No. 2 in E-flat Major; WAGNER: Ov. and Venusberg Music – BBC Chorus/ BBC Sym. Orch./ Sir Adrian Boult – ICA Classic.

Sir Adrian Boult = ELGAR: Symphony No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 63; WAGNER: Ov. and Venusberg Music – BBC Chorus/ BBC Sym. Orch./ Sir Adrian Boult – ICA Classics ICAC 5106, 74:23 [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

Sir Adrian Boult’s association with the Elgar Symphony No. 2 of 1911 begins in 1920, when he led a “revelatory” performance with the London Symphony Orchestra, a reading to which Elgar’s wife commented that Boult had made “that great work . . .clear & irresistible that . . .it penetrated straight to the minds & hearts of numbers who had failed to understand it …”

From a concert at Royal Albert Hall, London, 24 July 1977, Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) leads the Elgar E-flat Symphony for the last time, with Boult’s enjoying what critics call his “Indian summer” of renewed artistic energy. Boult had first recorded the massive score in 1944 with the BBC, to which this reading appears close in spirit. An impetuous rush of energy marks the opening Allegro vivace e nobilimente, the BBC trumpets in rocket figures, the lyrical second subject no less urged forward. Some of the musical material Elgar borrowed from his own score for The Black Knight of 1893, while the symphony itself is dedicated to King Edward VII, who died in May 1910. Elgar called this music “the passionate pilgrimage of a soul,” aligning the piece to his journeys to Venice and Tintagel – words inscribed on the last page of the score.

The second movement Larghetto – approached by Boult as a solemn dirge at its opening – might reflect Elgar’s reminiscence of Venice’s St. Mark’s basilica interior. The music proceeds through drum taps and some heavy brass, the string melody arising from low instruments carries a Brucknerian weight. The oboe carries much of the personal grief of the movement, composed not only for King Edward VII but for a dear personal friend and music-lover who passed away, Alfred E. Rodewald. The soft figures in the strings Elgar likened to “a woman dropping a flower on a man’s grave.”  The noble dignity of this music could find few with Boult’s ability to express it so directly, the passions (Shelley’s “City of Dreadful Night”) heroically contained.

Shelley had written “Rarely, rarely, comest Thou, Spirit of Delight. . .” The Venice sunshine appears to return for the Rondo: Presto third movement, actively bucolic and mercurial in the manner of his In the South Overture, Op. 50.  Suddenly, a tortured paroxysm of mental anguish ensues, what Elgar calls “a man in a high fever. . .a relentless beating in his brain.” The poetic association is either Poe’s Telltale Heart narrator or Tennyson’s Maude, in which a man morbidly considers the effects of his own burial. Some shootings in Rome 1908 may have played on Elgar’s imagination, along with news of the death of Rodewald. The Presto ends with a decisive stroke of doom.  If the second movement recalls Beethoven’s Eroica, the last movement celebrates conductor Hans Richter, who had long championed Elgar’s work. The generally triumphant mood of the finale, Moderato e maestoso, yields to a serenity of spirit we know from late Dvorak, but the last cadences allude to Wagner’s Tristan. Boult has guided the entire magnum opus with a sure hand for its potent shifts of mood and temperament, always realized in a majestic style, to which the London audience responds gratefully.

It seems less than coincidence that ICA attaches Sir Adrian Boult’s studio performance of Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and Venusberg Music (8 December 1968) to the Elgar, especially since he had not inscribed these for his series of EMI Wagner recordings. Even for a studio tape, this realization enjoys a decidedly “present” ambiance, and the BBC strings and brass project an especially alert sound, the famous hymn’s rising above illumined violins. Boult always cherished the German Romantic school of music, but only rarely could he indulge his operatic fancies. We feel privileged to have an extended moment of Wagner that bask in the warm clarity of Boult’s design.

—Gary Lemco

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