Boult: the NBC Recordings = BUTTERWORTH: A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92; ELGAR: Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma,” Op. 36; HOLST: A Fugal Concerto, Op. 40, No. 2; WALTON: Viola Concerto; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor; COPLAND: El Salon Mexico- William Primrose, viola/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Adrian Boult – Pristine Audio PASC 626 (2 CDs) 2:34:04 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Arturo Toscanini, having conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Britain, 1935, had been impressed enough with the quality of that ensemble to invite its excellent conductor, Adrian Boult, to lead a series of concerts at the NBC Symphony in 1938. It seems to me no accident that I often label Boult “the British Toscanini,” given their similar, linear and incisive approach, each nurtured to a degree by the standard set by the German conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), who influenced their respective sense of the Brahms style.
Boult opens his concert of 21 May 1938 with George Butterworth’s orchestral setting of A Shropshire Lad, taken from a song cycle he had set of sad, war poems of A.E. Housman in 1912. Three melodies from the song cycle appear: “Loveliest of Trees” and “Grief”; later in the score we hear “With rue my heart is laden,” almost a premonition of the composer’s wasteful death in the Battle of the Somme in WW I. The ardent tranquility and rapture of the work testify, in this most responsive reading, to a major orchestral talent, influenced by Debussy and Sibelius but very much his own voice.
From its initial impulse, Boult’s realization of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (14 May 1938) elicits a fluid, elan vital that we ascribe immediately to The Maestro himself, resonant and firmly resolved. The opening Poco sostenuto – Vivace enjoys a thrilling sense of pace, with excellent clarity of orchestral definition in the NBC woodwinds and the tympani. The graduated acceleration of the coda provides a study in orchestral discipline all its own. The Allegretto evokes a mystical, exalted valediction on a par with Toscanini’s esteemed reading with the New York Philharmonic, 1936. The Trio section, with its nostalgic lilt, evokes a sense of “paradise lost.” The Presto dances and sings in virtuoso fashion, clearly articulate. The finale, a rousing Allegro con brio, has enough of the dervish in Boult’s performance to keep both feet and heart pounding long after the coda. The NBC trumpet work in their attacks never ceases compel our attention.
The 1899 “Enigma” Variations of Sir Edward Elgar has its fair share of devoted adherents, including Arturo Toscanini, who conducted it in 1935 with BBC. Various scholars have speculated on the “dark mystery” the composer claimed lay behind the notes, ranging from children’s songs to the G Major/G Minor allusions to Mozart’s Prague Symphony. Pianist and musicologist Carmine Arena argued rather convincingly that J.S.Bach haunts the piece, especially in its numerological design. Nevertheless, the continued attraction of the work lies in its dignified melos and rhythmic ingenuity. Boult leads (21 May 1938) a nobly wrought, eminently transparent conception, with the “Nimrod” Variation’s holding pride of place for sonic breadth. Few pastoral moments in the score can compare with what Boult exacts from Variation XII “B.G.N.” The deft quality of the NBC instrumentalists – note the contribution by Karl Glassman, timpani – proves both lyrical and dramatic, as required.
Disc 2 includes a couple of US premieres, the Walton Viola Concerto and Copland’s El Salon Mexico. Boult opens with Gustav Holst’s 1923 A Fugal Concerto, a neo-Classical piece Holst wrote at Ann Arbor, Michigan for the University, as a token of gratitude. The work does not aim for false profundity, even as it hints at Bach and anticipates similar pieces by Stravinsky or Hindemith. The flute (John Wummer) has some fine moments, as do the NBC low strings.
William Walton conceived his 1928 Viola Concerto for the virtuoso Lionel Tertis, especially on Sir Thomas Beecham’s recommendation, but Tertis refused the work, claiming it “too modern.” Paul Hindemith, a fine violist and member of the Amar String Quartet, took up the premiere. Since virtuoso William Primrose already served in the NBC Symphony, Boult made the simple choice to program this American premiere. In the three movements, the Viola Concerto emanates a dark energy, mostly in minor keys. The second movement, Vivo, con molto preciso, generates a witty animation, somewhat jazzy and decidedly virtuosic, with harmonics in the flurry of notes. The music seems to parallel the mood of the second movement of Prokofiev’s D Major Violin Concerto. The expansive Allegro moderato third movement reveals a more romantic character in Walton, especially in the dialogues between Primrose and the clarinet. When the writing calls for Primrose’s viola to sing, he meets the task admirably. Boult has his own demands to fulfill, with some thick-textured counterpoint, replete with brass dissonances, to manipulate.
Aaron Copland wrote El Salon Mexico (1936) as a response to an invitation from Carlos Chavez to a Mexican, eponymous nightclub. Everything about this piece throbs with local, even drunken, color; and conductors Bernstein, Copland and Cantelli have made wonderful documents of their own versions of the piece. Artur Rodzinski had given the American premiere of this work. That Boult deals well with the American idiom has long been a point he made with his recording of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. Do we credit Bernard Baker with the first trumpet delights in this wizardly performance?
The major work of the radio broadcast 21 May 1938, the 1934 Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, an austere, colossal, often confrontational opus whose opening motif Vaughan Williams claimed he took from Beethoven’s Ninth. Most speculation as to the composer’s “program” refer to his bitter experience of WW I. For me, I find it compelling that the NBC Symphony would take up the work again in the 1940s, under Dimitri Mitropoulos. Structurally, much of this bitter and melancholy symphony conforms to the Classical notion of the form. The second movement, Andante moderato, emanates a yearning quality as powerful as the best lyric moments in Shostakovich; and, like his Russian counterpart, Vaughan Williams exploits his own capacities for polyphony. Where Vaughan Williams departs from his idol, Beethoven, lies in the former’s refusal to transition from despair into a triumphant resolution. This music casts a pall that rarely deviates from its grim perception of the human condition. Is this music simply a reflection of its troubled times, the 1930s before the advent of WW II? Hardly. Those times are alive and not so well, awaiting a contemporary voice to sing their indictments.
Please visit the Pristine Audio website for more information on this and other recordings: