Boult and the BBC Symphony: the pre-war recordings, Vol. 2 – Pristine Audio

by | Jun 18, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Boult and the BBC Symphony: the pre-war recordings, Vol. 2 – WEBER; MENDELSSOHN; BERLIOZ; AUBER; NICOLAI; CHOPIN; MEYERBEER; SCHUMANN; SUPPÉ – BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Adrian Boult, cond. – Pristine Audo PASC 715 (2 CDs: 1:58:06, complete content listing below) [www.pristine] ****: 

Mark Obert-Thorn continues with the second of his projected four-volume series devoted to Sir Adrian Boult’s leadership of the BBC Symphony in recordings, 1932-1937. The rarities featured in this release include works by Auber, Weber, and Schumann, in addition to the fact that many of the remaining selections had not had previous CD incarnation. We quickly appreciate the level of orchestral execution Boult attained, on a par with the contemporary efforts of Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Hamilton Harty. 

Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) often receives from me the appellation “the British Toscanini,” given that he and the Italian maestro had been influenced by German master Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), especially in the Brahms tradition, although Toscanini’s aesthetic tended to be dominated by Giuseppe Verdi. Boult claimed Nikisch and Hans Richter equally as significant models for his own approach. Both he and Toscanini offer direct, literalist performances marked by rhythmic urgency and clean orchestral definition. Any collection of Boult’s assembled discography reveals the astonishing catholicity of his taste, his ability to adjust to music of any genre in any chosen medium. That he eschewed serialism and minimalist scores does not detract from a fine commitment to modern music, which extended into both ballet and opera. 

Obert-Thorn here assembles fourteen numbers that could serve as either introductory works at a concert or encore pieces. Boult opens with Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz (7 October 1932), the epitome of Romantic opera ethos, whose long introduction conveys the haunts of the Black Forest. The slow, first three minutes are offset by a fierce, almost frenzied allegro that hustles the themes from the opera in a mighty pageant. The dialogues among winds, brass, and low strings provide a nervous grandeur to the development, which coming to a sudden, dreadful halt, burst forth for a torrential coda. The equally rambunctious Euryanthe Overture (28 January 1937) has the benefit of a more lyrical beauty of melodic line, though no less driven by Boult’s galloping tempos. The slow sections allow a graduated intimacy and chamber music affect to emerge from an otherwise bravura ensemble. The clarity in the contrapuntal development emerges without any lessening of dramatic impetus.

Three examples from Felix Mendelssohn, his splendidly compact Hebrides Overture (20 October 1933), the Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (6 April 1933), and the 1839 Ruy Blas Overture (2 November 1934) testify to Boult’s affinity for the composer. The color panoply in the Fingal’s Cave enjoys an enchanting allure as well as an etched sense of musical velocity. The clarity in Mendelssohn’s counterpoints, just as it had illuminated those passages in Weber, seems not at all academic or merely ornamental. For the haunted Nocturne from Shakespeare’s rural fantasy, the assistance of master horn player Aubrey Brain (1893-1955) to intone the bucolic serenity of the occasion. Boult does not drag the tempo; in fact, he urges the music forward, as if it were an entr’acte to the remainder of Mendelssohn’s brilliant incidental music. The dynamic hustle of Ruy Blas is not to be denied, here played in audacious, virtuoso style, especially in the BBC brass. 

Disc 1 concludes with three visceral readings of overtures from Hector Berlioz, the first two: Les francs juges and King Lear recorded at the same 3 December 1936 session. The Roman Carnival was recorded earlier, 10 October 1933. The 1826 Les francs juges has held me in thrall from performances by Toscanini and Paul Kletzki, the music a testament to Berlioz’s hatred for the kind of tyranny secret courts condoned. Boult molds the string and brass introduction, tense with menacing agitation, the colors ripe in the convulsive trombones, moving to the extremely attractive Allegro, with its captivating tune in A-flat, over throbbing accompaniment. The tune in the winds combines with the scurrying element prior, and then Berlioz meanders adventurously by way of Weber’s examples in the two overtures Boult has already delivered. Boult holds these angst-laden impulses together within a clear, evolving gallop, allowing the main tune to console us up to the brass motif in a volatile coda. 

The 1831 Overture King Lear resulted from Berlioz’s return to France after having won the Prix de Rome, and he felt eager to express musically his new-found admiration for Shakespeare plays. Beecham and Mitropoulos, and later Colin Davis, maintained affection for this darkly scored work, consistent with the mental aberrations suffered by the play’s protagonist. The slow introduction concluded, the music breaks out, presto, in driven motifs that culminate with an attractive oboe melody, perhaps homage to Cordelia’s faithful character. Boult moves smoothly through the varied textures and conflicted affects of this imaginative music, savoring the manic shifts in dynamics and feverish intensity. The high lyricism of the BBC receives flattering sonics in Obert-Thorn’s seamless transfers from electrical 78s, a tribute I often pay to this devoted producer.

The Roman Carnival plays with the same luster and natural phrasing, clearly a labor of love from all participants. The low introduction receives a particularly caressing, legato treatment, attaching distinctly festive colors as it proceeds. The feria section ensues with a light, brilliant touch, the strings exploiting the tip of the bow to accent the syncopated verve that the brass soon inherits. A virtuoso performance, to which the engineering of the period has done full justice in capturing Berlioz’s knotty, contrapuntal scoring whose instrumental colors defy verbal translation.

Disc 2 opens with Auber’s Masaniello Overture, the 1828 drama also known as La Muette de Portici, based on the 1647 uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. Boult’s performance (2 November 1934) is marked by deft string playing and wonderful, snappy coordination from winds, horn, and battery. This piece first came to me by way of Jean Fournet, but Boult’s British forces lose nothing in translation. Otto Nicolai’s 1849 Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor, again taken from Shakespeare, has Boult and the BBC (27 March 1934) in rather broad strokes, from the high pedal and horn calls that initiate the piece, to the florid melody which has immortalized its place in the repertory. The whiplash rhythms and selective portamento typify the fine level of execution Bould elicited from his players, whom he frequently, as preparation for a final take, “loosened up,” to quote Obert-Thorn. 

We break the exultant, outdoor concert mood momentarily, auditioning Edward Elgar’s arrangement of the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 35 (rec. 30 May 1932). Appropriately heavy and ceremonial, the version allows the salient BBC strings their sentimentalized portamento, especially treacly in the middle section. Boult restores the more upbeat mood with the pompous Coronation March in E-flat from Meyerbeer’s 1849 opera Le prophète (rec. 16 April 1937) already immortalized on record by Willem Mengelberg and his virtuoso ensemble from New York in 1929. The silky but sliding quality of the string work reminds us of a past school of Romantic interpretation, but the militant aspects of the score retain a stolid dignity. 

Schumann’s 1848 (rev. 1852) music for Byron’s 1817 Manfred has only the Overture regularly performed, although incidental music attracted Scherchen and Beecham to the recording studio.  Boult (27 March 1934) drives the music hard, briskly executed in the strings, which had assumed pride of place with Boult’s nurture. The music itself projects a manic repetition of phraseology, perhaps a tribute to Schumann’s capacity for concise economy, or a sign of his own mental instability. The resonantly clear lines of the piece unfold in clarion tones, courtesy of Obert-Thorn and the Pristine Audio processing. 

Boult concludes with a rousing version of Suppé’s 1866 Light Cavalry Overture, guaranteed to light up strings and brass for all their honed salt. The razor sharp entries and intonation testify to a joyful panache in the sheer execution of the Austro-Hungarian militancy, set as an operetta of love, intrigue, and hussars. The whistling tempos and deft horn work will require repeated listening to savor what Boult offered to British music making in the 1930s.

—Gary Lemco

Boult and the BBC Symphony: the pre-war recordings, Vol. 2 =

WEBER: Der Freischütz Overture; Euryanthe Overture;
MENDELSSOHN: Hebrides Overture, Op. 26; Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61; Ruy Blas Overture, Op. 95;
BERLIOZ: Les francs juges Overture, Op. 3; Le Roi Lear Overture, Op. 4; Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9;
AUBER: Masaniello Overture;
NICOLAI: Merry Wives of Windsor Overture;
CHOPIN (arr. Elgar): Funeral March;
MEYERBEER: Coronation March;
SCHUMANN: Manfred Overture, Op. 115;
SUPPÉ Light Cavalry Overture

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