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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 1 in A flat Op.55 (1908) [48:37]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat Op. 63 (1911) [51:16]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1968. ADD
2 CDs for the price of 1
LYRITA SRCD.221 [48:37 + 51:16]

I’d always assumed because Boult was incensed at having been told to divide his violins for these recordings, and because by all accounts he threw one of his periodic fits, that these recordings were sub-par. The impression was reinforced by their long absence from the catalogues and by the existence of other recordings by Boult of the symphonies, some commercial and others live. Since Sargent was completely bypassed for studio recordings of the symphonies – an unaccountable misjudgement which live broadcast performances have thrown into pertinent relief – it was left to Boult and Barbirolli to dominate the field. I’ve always found Barbirolli more convincing in No.1 – in the earlier Hallé recording, fond though I am of the emotional Philharmonia traversal – and Boult in No. 2, a work that he did so much to revivify in the 1920s and of which his 1945 78s set is so supreme an example of his way with it.

Be all this as it may, critics would have stacked up these 1968 Lyritas against the two Barbirolli No. 1s and the LPO Boult of 1957. They would have duly noted Boult’s greater fidelity to the score, as regards the later Barbirolli recordings, but the greater tonal warmth of the Philharmonia which does indeed play marvellously for Barbirolli, whatever reservations they may have harboured about his tempi.

Now that we have the luxury of so many years to consider, it remains really only to examine Boult’s recordings in the cold light of critical day. If I’d imagined they were sub-par I was wrong. I still don’t think them the best of Boult. The 78 set of the Second from 1945, sonically limited though it may be, and the later EMI 1970s recording of No.1 seem to me to be his most outstanding statements of both scores. But what remains true is the tremendous symphonic grip and control exerted by Boult throughout both works.

The measured gravity of his opening of the First, is highlit by Lyrita’s close-up concentration on the strutting brass, and by the colour often obscured in more massy, messy, congested performances and recordings. Solo lines emerge beautifully and naturally from the density of Elgar’s undergrowth. And at 65 crotchets to the minute Boult approaches Elgar’s demand of 72; with Boult tempi are linear yet infinitely malleable in matters of rubati, all the while predicated on the long line, on architectural verities, principles long handed down to him in the symphonic literature. His slow movement is nobly burnished but not as superficially affecting as Barbirolli’s Philharmonia performance.

The Second Symphony is equally impressive. Boult had long learned that not all Elgar’s voluminous tempo markings were to be followed to the letter but he keeps to the sprit of most of them. Therefore his opening movement emerges as a powerfully consonant piece of work, each incident properly related to the whole. Boult’s performance is an argument in the strictest architectural terms, building the edifice from the ground up and having always in view the final pages, which he unfolds with unselfconscious and culminatory glow. It’s not the most obviously extrovert or emotive performance but it never releases its own special grip.

So, yes, the long unavailability of these performances should not have been equated by me with below-par performances in a fraught recording studio, if that’s what it was. Boult admirers have many performances of his on which to draw when it comes to the Elgar symphonies. These were not his first nor his last words on the subject but they sit wisely and well and not especially transitionally, in the corpus of his Elgar discs. In truth then not essential – but very valuable.

Jonathan Woolf

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Stephen Hall


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