Boult and the BBC, Vol. 1 – Bach, Mozart, Gluck, Beethoven, Schubert – Pristine Audio

by | Nov 1, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Boult and the BBC, Vol. 1: Bach, Mozart, Gluck, Beethoven, Schubert – Sir Adrian Boult, BBC Symphony Orchestra – Pristine Audio PASC 670 (2 CDs: 2:34:13) [complete listing below] [] *****:

Recording Engineer and Producer Mark Obert-Thorn initiates a series devoted to Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) and his association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, this installment’s embracing the years 1932-1937. An ardent admirer of Artur Nikisch and Fritz Steinbach while a conducting student at Leipzig, Boult came to focus on textural fidelity and clarity of line as major concerns for his own style, a linear and propulsive approach much akin with that of his slightly older contemporary, Arturo Toscanini. Boult took the helm of the BBC Symphony in 1930, quickly raising the standard of execution to a level that would incite Sir Thomas Beecham to establish his rival London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932. Of the ten works restored on this set, only two, the Beethoven 8th and Schubert 9th, have had prior issue. 

Using modern instruments in a large ensemble, Boult performs Bach’s Overture in D Major (23 May 1933) with a briskly steady tempo, moving from the dotted, rhythmic opening and upper, singing line and resonant bass to a festive, virtuosic realization of the Vite section, particularly demanding on the string and brass choirs. The ubiquitous Air moves at a resolute andante without loss of its innate pathos. A touch of string portamento allies the style with the more ‘romantic’ interpreters Furtwaengler, Stokowski, and Mengelberg, but without exaggeration. Fervent pageantry marks the two Gavottes; the Bourrée reminds us, breathlessly, of its French origin as a quick “clog dance.” Boult’s Gigue, taken a bit marcato, retains a regal poise, the horn work a model of clear resonance. The Bach contribution concludes with the 23 May 1933 reading of the Preludio from the Solo Partita No. 3, a favorite vehicle of Koussevitzky’s to show off his BSO’s unanimity of string tone. Boult’s version has a manic impetus, the large and intimate sounds in competition like a miniature concerto grosso, quite effective.

The recording of the Gluck Alceste Overture (28 January 1937) projects a gravitas that rivals renditions from Mengelberg and Furtwaengler, with more bursts of impelled energy after the slow, opening measures and later development. The emphasis on Gluck’s passing dissonances in the bass harmony arrests our attention, as does the ardent, upper string line. As an example of the burgeoning sturm und drang sensibility, the music has few rivals. 

Compared to the Albert Coates LSO 1927 version of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, that by Boult (27 May 1933) comes as a sane tonic. Less viscerally punishing than Coates, the Boult reading of the Allegro vivace exults in Mozart’s capacity for tender lyricism. This does deny those rapid passages in which the BBC exerts wonderful homogeneity of delivery. The slow movement, Andante, basks in the interplay of Mozart’s string and woodwind lines, poised and cleanly articulated. Once more, a touch of string portamento at cadence endings reveals an older aesthetic. As Obert-Thorn notes, Boult assumes a leisurely approach to the Minuet, which alternately floats and thrusts its fluid charms. Boult split the recording over two sides to provide the court dance breathing room. The Trio section enjoys wit and girth. The rousing finale, Molto allegro, allows Boult the privilege of revealing the demonism – as had Coates – that lies within the possibilities of miraculous counterpoint. The degree of color dynamics issued from the BBC proves no less phenomenal, from soft, almost invisible pianos to throbbing fortes, the Mannheim rockets in full, regal glory.  

Boult complements his Jupiter Symphony with two overtures: a decidedly manic reading of The Impresario – Overture (22 May 1933) that certainly does not defer to Albert Coates or Serge Koussevitzky for bravura, whirlwind execution. The Overture to Così fan tutti (23 March 1934) projects a thoroughly buffo notion of the opera’s upcoming antics, busily hectic in all parts, especially the BBC bassoon. The volatility both invokes Toscanini in Italian opera and that conductor’s own disciple, Guido Cantelli. The last page, hesitating for a moment, proceeds to a brilliant coda.

Boult’s Beethoven group opens with a fiercely driven 1807 Coriolan Overture (20 October 1933), chiseled much in the Toscanini mold. The dark, C Minor tenor of the piece conveys the passion of the drama by Joseph Heinrich von Collin, the lyrical melody (in E-flat Major) soaring in epic consolation. Collectors may well recall the powerful set of Beethoven symphony recordings Boult made for the Everest label. The ensuing Egmont Overture (6 April 1933) after Goethe’s melodrama proceeds with the same linear intent, moving from its dark F Minor, sarabande sensibility to a triple meter Allegro that embraces the tender sentiment of Egmont’s lover Claechen. The untimely death of Egmont spurs an epic coda, what Beethoven (and Boult) conceive as a triumphal Battle Symphony, a victory over all oppression, political and spiritual. The BBC brass capture the heroic gestures with directed resolve.

Boult recorded Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 on 21 July 1932, some four years prior to my old, preferred 1936 account by Felix Weingartner and the Vienna Philharmonic. Boult takes the first movement, Allegro vivace e con brio, repeat, which slows the furious, directed progress not at all. The level of execution and orchestral definition in this restoration remain alert, dramatically convincing. Boult’s elastic tension pervades the rest of the interpretation, without any sacrifice of wit or playful sport that marks the middle two movements and the spirited, thrilling finale. The second movement, a parody of the recently invented metronome, indicates a sempre staccato ostinato, that ticking motif that becomes ever more unstable in Beethoven’s deft application. For the third movement, Tempo di menuetto, its middle section Trio has all of the pastoral elements of a country serenade, most effective from Boult and the BBC winds. Half step displacements and syncopated shifts mark the bumptious, brilliant whimsical finale, Allegro vivace, which Boult plays up with considered, dramatic pauses. Rarely has one note, the C#, had such unnerving repercussions.  Along with any number of wrong-key digressions, the music never fails to tease us into a hearty acceptance of its mastery and parody of traditional classical procedure. The BBC brass and tympani at last move us to a hard-won denouement, a tour de force for all concerned. 

Mark Obert-Thorn alerts us that Sir Adrian Boult recorded the Schubert 1826 Ninth Symphony (17 December 1934) out of order, beginning with the last movement, in order to maintain the freshness of his ensemble’s approach in the longer movements. Boult’s singing approach to the opening of the Andante – Allegro ma non troppo may remind auditors of the Mengelberg reading, minus the swooping, rhythmic distortions of that conductor. The ensuing Allegro enjoys a fine sense of ensemble from winds, brass, and strings, the occasionally competing metric impulses perfectly coordinated. Again, the linear progress nods its debts to Nikisch and Toscanini ideals, the coda richly textured. 

The heart of the work, the second movement Andante con moto, with its bouncy march alternating between A Minor and C Major, unfolds to opens mysterious and deep, romantic vistas, a landscape shaped by intervals in thirds. Boult imbues the movement with lyricism and tenderness, if not the haunted mystique Furtwaengler achieves in account with the 1953 Berlin Philharmonic. The movement’s eruptive, contrapuntal cry of pain shatters Boult’s having kneaded an idyll, and his subsequent pizzicatos and martial tempo proceeds in the manner of a paradise lost. 

The last two movements demand relentless energy, even merely considering the twenty-two repetitions of the wind and brass ostinatos in the last movement. Boult’s Scherzo has a glistening sonority and bristling sense of attack. The fluid transition from C Major to A Major counts among the Schubert miracles of tonal manipulation. Boult’s breakneck tempo for the Finale (Allegro vivace) preserves the robust energies and soulful lyricism of the occasion, with its periodic interruptions of brass pageantry and the totally “unwarranted” appearance of the Beethoven 9th motif pp, in the clarinets and winds. More than a virtuoso steeplechase, the performance has invested grandeur and potent sincerity in all parts, and seamlessly rendered in these fine transfers.

Boult and the BBC Symphony, Vol. 1:

BACH: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068;
Preludio from Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 (arr. Pick-Mangiagalli);

GLUCK: Alceste – Overture;

MOZART: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 “Jupiter”;
The Impresario – Overture, K. 486;
Così fan tutte – Overture, K. 588;

BEETHOVEN: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62;
Egmont Overture, Op. 84a;
Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93;

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 “The Great”

—Gary Lemco 

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Album Cover for Boult and the BBC, Vol 1

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