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Boult Conducts

Two English Idylls [4:58 + 4:32]
The Banks of Green Willow [5:33]
A ‘Shropshire Lad’ Rhapsody [8:35]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
An Old Song for small orchestra [5:56]
Patrick HADLEY (1899-1973)
One Morning in Spring - Rhapsody for small orchestra [3:54]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Procession [4:51]
Merry-eye* [8:50]
Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra* [9:05]
Music for a Prince*: Corydon’s Dance [7:11]; Scherzo in Arden [5:17]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
Herbert Downes (viola)*; Desmond Bradley, Gillian Eastwood (violins); Albert Cayzer (viola); Norman Jones (cello)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1970, 1979, 1977. ADD
LYRITA SRCD.245 [68.46]

This lovely CD assembles recordings from a number of LPs that Sir Adrian made for Lyrita in the 1970s. The pieces that are included might be described as miniatures. However, if that term is used it should not be employed in any pejorative sense since the only thing that’s miniature about most of these works is their length.
The collection begins with George Butterworth, often claimed to have been the most significant composer casualty of the Great War His Two English Idylls are both based on folk songs. The first uses no less than three, whereas there is but one in the second, which is a little more serious in tone than its companion. Both pieces integrate the folk songs effectively and in Boult’s hands both come up with delightful freshness.
The Banks of Green Willow has a special association with Boult. He included it in the very first concert that he gave with a professional symphony orchestra, in 1914. Not only that, but this was the work’s very first performance so it has the distinction of being the first in a very long line of works whose performing tradition began with Sir Adrian. Typically, he gives a scrupulously prepared and nicely detailed performance here. The passage where flute and harp combine for the tune ‘Green Bushes’ has a special magic.
And then there’s the orchestral work by which Butterworth will be principally remembered, A ‘Shropshire Lad’ Rhapsody – note that the title, about which apparently Butterworth was very particular, is given in full and correctly by Lyrita. Boult distils a very special atmosphere in the hauntingly evocative opening bars. Throughout he ensures that every detail of the orchestral canvass is placed properly and naturally. This is a Big Piece in everything but duration: it’s far more than a musing on a melodic fragment from a Butterworth song – ‘Loveliest of Trees ‘ from his A Cycle of Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ – this is a lament for the lost innocence of youth and at times there’s real passion in the writing. Boult gets the balance between passion and poetry just right, it seems to me, in a wise and perceptive reading. As the end of the work approaches the return to the opening woodwind calls over tremolando strings is quite beautifully managed. The return to general circulation of this outstanding performance is cause enough to rejoice and the disc is an essential purchase for this alone.
But there’s much more to enjoy. The Warlock piece, which is the earliest of the three orchestral works that he composed, is a nice little creation though it carries perhaps too strong a Delian imprint. Patrick Hadley’s One Morning in Spring was one of a number of pieces written by various English composers in celebration of the 70th birthday of Hadley’s teacher, Vaughan Williams, in October 1942. Another such work, and the one that has commended itself most to posterity, was the marvellous Shakespeare song cycle, Let Us Garland Bring by Gerald Finzi. In her definitive biography of Finzi Diana McVeagh comments that Finzi didn’t think much of Hadley’s piece but Boult makes a good case for it here.
And then the spotlight shifts to Herbert Howells with the inclusion of some orchestral works, one of which at least may surprise listeners who know his music through his more frequently performed church music. This is Procession. Stephen Lloyd speculates in his notes that this piece, originally for solo piano, may have been inspired by ‘Bydlo’ from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition I’ve not heard the piano version but its orchestral guise it seems as if there may well be something in Lloyd’s idea. The music is, like Mussorgsky’s, relentless in its tread and Boult makes it sound almost brazen. It’s certainly a far cry from English pastoralism, even more so from Cathedral choir stalls.
Merry-eye could not be more different. Howells wrote it while on honeymoon – one wonders what Dorothy Howells thought of that! In parts it’s exuberant and elsewhere it’s gossamer light. Above all, it’s self-evidently the music of a happy man and Boult’s effervescent performance is a delight.
The next piece presents yet another contrast. Elegy was composed in 1917 in memory of Francis Purcell Warren, universally known as ‘Bunny’, who had been a student with Howells and who had recently fallen in action in the trenches in France. The prominence given to a solo viola – here superbly played by Herbert Downes – reflects the fact that this was Warren’s own instrument. In his biography of Howells Paul Spicer quotes a story told by Alan Ridout. Ridout relates that at a lecture at the Royal College of Music a few days after the death of King George VI in 1951 Howells played to his students a recording of a piece that he did not identify. He introduced it thus: “If there is a better expression of the music of mourning, I have yet to hear it.” Alone among Howells’s audience Ridout recognised that the music in question was this Elegy. It’s a most affecting piece of music, one that is quite clearly the product of great feeling. It’s right in the mainstream of the English tradition of writing for string orchestra. Here the piece receives a dedicated and eloquent reading. This is music that deserves to be far better known and I hope that the advent onto CD of this masterly performance will advance its cause.  
There’s also a connection with Warren in one of the pair of pieces that constitute Music for a Prince. Commissioned by the BBC to write music to celebrate the birth of Prince Charles in 1948, Howells revisited music that he’d written as long ago as 1914. Then he’d composed a suite of five pieces for orchestra which he’d entitled The B’s This consisted of five short, affectionate portraits of Howells himself and his four closest student friends at the Royal College of Music: Ivor Gurney, Arthur Bliss, Arthur Benjamin and ‘Bunny’ Warren. For the 1948 work Howells abstracted the Warren music, originally a Mazurka and now re-titled ‘Corydon’s Dance’ and also what was originally called ‘Blissy’ for Arthur Bliss and which now became ‘Scherzo in Arden.’ These are engaging pieces. Once one knows the Warren connection one listens out for the viola and, sure enough, Howells gives it some occasional prominence. The Scherzo is an interesting composition in which quiet, more reflective passages are interspersed with more quicksilver fast music. Boult’s performances of these two little nuggets are winning.
The notes by Stephen Lloyd are very interesting but I’m afraid they contain a few factual slips. He appears to confuse the two Butterworth Idylls, describing the one that is actually the shorter of them – at least in Boult’s hands - as the longer of them. More seriously, the name of Howells’s teacher at Gloucester Cathedral is given as A.H.Herbert whereas, of course, it was Sir Herbert Brewer. The date of the death in action of ‘Bunny’ Warren is given as 1916 but in both of the standard biographical works about Howells – by Christopher Palmer and Paul Spicer – the date is given as 1917 and that’s surely correct since Elegy was written that year – and soon after Warren’s death, as Mr. Lloyd confirms - as a memorial to Warren. I’m sorry if this appears nit picking but these are important details.
The recordings were made at various times in the 1970s and all are consistently excellent – a splendid demonstration of the quality of good analogue recordings. I’m glad the engineers did such fine work for they have captured here a series of marvellous performances by a great conductor.
This is a super disc, which deserves a place of honour in the collection of all lovers of English music, as it now will have in mine.
John Quinn

see also review by Rob Barnett

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