Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste
The Garden of Fand
Symphony No. 3
Rhapsody on Loveliest Of Trees
The Prince of Denmark’s March (Trumpet Voluntary)
Sylvia, Coppelia, Naila – music from the ballets
Variations on a Nursery Song
Symphony No. 1
In The South, Alassio
Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo
Cuban Overture, Rhumba
The Perfect Fool Suite
Caprice-Valse Wedding Cake
Songs of the Fleet
Symphony No. 6
The Lark Ascending
Overture Portsmouth Point
I gioelli della Madonna: Suite No. 2 Intermezzo
Christopher Bunting Cello
Patricia Bishop Piano
Jean Pougnet Violin
Gwenneth Prior Piano
Frederick Harvey Baritone
Hugh McLean Organ
Croyden Philharmonic Society Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult Conductor
LPO Records LPO 0119
These are not for the most part the extraordinary recordings Boult made in the late 1960s and into the 70s for EMI, produced by Christopher Bishop, that introduced him as an interpreter of the classics to a new generation – mine. In those years Boult emerged as the grand master, freed from the smothering of his reputation by factional music politics and his own tendency to accept whatever was thrown at him.
These are earlier recordings, made in the post-war years when the LPO moved away from their founder, Beecham, and Boult was forced to retire from the BBC and the orchestra he had assembled, the BBC Symphony. The irony was that Beecham had assumed in 1929 that he would be given the BBC job and was so angry when he was not that he started the LPO in revenge.
The story of the Boult – Beecham rivalry is as fascinating as it is depressing and began before the First World War. Beecham, an arch Machiavellian, always assumed that Boult was a dangerous rival. They could hardly have been more different; the expansive socialite Beecham against the ascetic Unitarian Boult, the man who liked to think he knew better than composers versus the man who stuck rigidly to their wishes. It was never quite true of either of them but as a broad characterisation it worked. Beecham was ten years older, an academic drop-out who wanted to study music in Germany but was prevented by family prejudice. Boult sailed through Westminster and Oxford, then went to Leipzig to learn from Arthur Nikisch. Beecham championed Delius and Sibelius, Boult looked to Holst, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and more surprisingly, Berg and Hindemith.
So when the relationship between the LPO and Beecham soured a decade or so after its foundation, turning to Boult, first for wartime concerts around Britain, then as Music Director, was the ultimate provocation. Beecham went back to the drawing board, repeated the pattern, and started the Royal Philharmonic. It is extraordinary that these two conductors started every full symphony orchestra in London except for the Philharmonia (and Beecham was their first conductor too) and the LSO.
This gives the context to these performances from the first 20 years of Boult’s relationship with the LPO; from Elgar Symphony No. 1 in 1949 to Gershwin’s Cuban Overture in 1968, and Butterworth’s Rhapsody from his 80th birthday broadcast from Maida Vale. Two things stand out. The first is the astonishing improvement in recorded sound in that time. The second is the progress of the orchestra itself. Before Boult joined, the orchestra’s future was far from assured and its quality was not remarkable. In the seven years that he was Music Director (1950-57), he transformed that, finishing his official tenure by taking them on the first trip by a British orchestra to the Soviet Union – Boult, who always refused to fly, struggled across Eastern Europe to Moscow by train. He handed over first to John Pritchard, who made the LPO Glyndebourne’s opera orchestra (which it still is), just as it had been Covent Garden’s under Beecham in the 30s, then to Bernard Haitink, who had taken over the Concertgebouw from van Beinum, who in turn had been at the LPO before Boult. Something of a conducting merry-go-round but the result was an orchestra with astonishing flexibility and one of the best string sections in the world.
In these recordings you can hear the development. The 1949 Elgar, their first recording together) has its rough passages,the 1955 live recording from the Royal Festival Hall has Croydon Philharmonic Society Choir joining the LPO for Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet and a higher standard of diction and attack would be expected now (though Frederic Harvey’s baritone has a wonderful sense of period). By the time they reach the Butterworth in 1968 the playing is full of subtlety that is a long way from the early more direct approach.
The real joy of this set is the breadth of music. Who would have picked Boult for Bartok? But they knew each from Bartok’s years in London and in 1936 Boult had even conducted the BBC SO in the Four Orchestral Pieces in Budapest. The 1955 recording of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste is chilling at the start, then crisp and precise. It makes the decision a few years later to entrust him with the London premiere of Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony less surprising. Much odder and out of character is the Suite from Delibes ballets from the same sessions.
There are gems, one of them being Bruch’s Kol Nidrei with Christopher Bunting as the cello soloist from 1967. Bunting is less renowned than he should be. I should be biased against him because, a couple of years later, he heard my attempts at the instrument and, in kindly despair, suggested I work harder at it or give up. I gave up. Hearing this performance again, full of intense beauty and melancholy, I know how right he was.
I suppose this is a set for the archives but for those who appreciate Boult’s innate musicianship and determination to bring out the strength of everything he conducted it is a delight. For the LPO it is crucial evidence of the time when it emerged as one of Europe’s great orchestras.