BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98; MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 “Italian” – BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Mendelssohn)/ Sir Adrian Boult – ICA Classics ICAC 5093, 64:12 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983), to whom I always refer as “the British Toscanini,” delivers a masterly performance of the Brahms Fourth Symphony (8 August 1975) with the BBC Symphony, an ensemble he himself helped create in 1930. Boult learned his craft from two fine German exponents of the music of Brahms, Artur Nikisch and Fritz Steinbach. While Boult may have maintained a reserved demeanor on the podium – much like his contemporary the French master Pierre Monteux – his tempos always arose as an organic outgrowth of the melodic and harmonic motion of the score, abetted by a keen instinct for interior timbre and color. The clear and architectural results consistently speak for themselves in Boult, and his grasp of diverse musical styles met every challenge in a vast repertory.

The epithets that characterize his first movement Allegro non troppo are “driven” and “pungent.” Unsentimental but effectively rounded periods mark every transition of the musical materials (mostly in chains of rising and descending thirds) and their dramatic utterance. The BBC winds and brass open the Andante moderato as if it were a noble wind serenade with punctuated string pizzicato. When the big string melody opens outward, the effect proves nobly mesmerizing. The layered aspects of the Brahms interior polyphony become remarkably clear as well as limpidly moving. The flute part simply soars above the winds and strings over a generous tympanic roll. The remainder of the movement presents Brahms at his valedictory best, urbane and sweet at once.

A real Scherzo, Allegro giocoso, with the winds, tympani, and triangle asserts itself most prominently in our sonic consciousness.  Vividly brisk tempos, biting entries, and sweeping gestures carry the day in this visceral movement. The unidentified French horn player makes magical sense of the Trio section, then the unabashed thud of the music’s original tempo resumes in full fury. With a touch of marcato in the final pages, Boult rams home a Brahms scherzo of wit and resilient, masculine energy. The last movement, the eternal tribute to the Brahms penchant for Classical architecture, receives the same athletic flexibility of expression as the previous movements, only here subordinate to a fixed (passacaglia) design. The Brahms designation for “energico e passionato” has its sympathetic interpreter in Boult, whose taut sense of musical momentum never waivers. The flute solo moves over a disturbed universe, “time’s wing’d chariot hurrying near.” Boult has the French horn introduce a swelled version of the martial tune, which returns to its original expression magnified by fortissimos and a tragic dimension, all its own. Once more, the overtly marcato tread impels us to dramatic intensities we had not foreseen. A series of tympanic tattoos ushers in the final statement of the original, now absorbed into a spectacular coda of immeasurable power, a peroration of grand nobility and infinite, Dionysian wisdom. Listen to that London audience erupt!

The perennially charmed score, Mendelssohn’s 1833 A Major “Italian” Symphony has a rare appearance in the Boult catalogue, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic 29 July 1972. Lovely balances mark this Boult reading, the brass, strings, and winds contoured in precisely those musical textural units to achieve the maximum clarity of line. The melodic pulse – through which waft every sort of enchanted, woodwind filigree – always moves with an air of casual beauty. Even the martial rhythmic thrusts maintain their clarion deportment, sweetly rendered. No dawdling, the Andante con moto ensues immediately after the last note of the Allegro vivace, its D Minor song suggesting a cloud on the otherwise sunny horizon. The inspiration for this movement purportedly a religious procession the composer saw in Naples, the music under Boult possesses a firm nobility of purpose, grandly Mediterranean in expression. A French sensibility informs the Con moto moderato, played as a languorous minuet. The touches of delicate color that permeate Boult’s reading, perhaps not so flamboyant as we have in Beecham, still communicate a Southern warmth and geniality quite apt for the music at hand, with nice brass work in the trio. The Saltarello: Presto generates a peasant glamour unique in music, and Boult hustles this exciting music ahead with delicious aptitude for its pounding drive and masterly orchestration. One of the few symphonic pieces to begin in major and end in minor, the Italian Symphony under Boult retains its high gloss and often volcanic energy without having sacrificed any of its crisp nuances, even those last pages where the the rush of notes barely touches the ground.

—Gary Lemco