Tag Archives: Boult

Elgar In the South

Elgar penned a number of “Concert Overtures,” in the mode of Brahms, including, in some order of prominence, the popular Cocakaigne and Froissart; In the South (Alassio) would probably finish third, and hasn’t been recorded often. It’s a superb 100_0498piece, full of verve and dynamic melody, but very much requiring the special Elgarian touch which breathes life into his melodies, and inept hands render dull or bombastic. Boult recorded In the South twice, in 1955 and again in 1972 with the LPO on HMV. The earlier is my clear favorite, and I was lucky to recently pick up a pristine copy of the original issue, ALP-1359, which belies its mono sound, with whooping horns gloriously calling out the theme. (On CD here.) I learned the piece with Slatkin conducting the same band, 19 years later on an RCA CD. The companion Symphony No. 1 61iYj+5+ekL._SL500_leaves much to be desired, but the Overture never sounded more glorious. It’s not as nuanced a reading as Sir Adrian in ’55 when there was probably a good cohort in the orchestra yet who had played under the composer.

The Gramophone favored the Boult and later a Bournemouth record from Constantin Silvestri, 1968 vintage, which truly turns the piece into something new: I’m reminded with this record of Stokowski’s knack of taking underappreciated, underperformed works and by seeming sheer force of will making them sound like masterpieces (my favorite examples are his 1958 Everest recording of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture and much later RCA Khachaturian Sym. No. 3, if you don’t know the work, go buy a copy on CD). Silvestri at this time was recording a lot of “showpieces” with HMV, 100_0500including some in quadraphonic that made it onto the 8-track “TWO” imprint; doesn’t appear that the Elgar made the cut, a pity. The sound on the vinyl (ASD 2370) is the absolute height of HMV’s 1960s analogue wizardry: both immediate and lush, totally realistic and also dramatic in its sonic spacing. Available on CD in a number of iterations, though I can’t vouch for the sound. The performance is without equal, rising in its finlale that is positively stunning. And once again, I lament the fact that apparently only English orchestras, over decades, are interested in performing Elgar.


Karajan and Boult’s Quadraphonic Wagner on EMI

As an enthusiast of quadraphonic sound, the 1970’s on EMI/HMV were the golden age. By far the best SQ quad sound I’ve heard comes from their records of this era, particularly those engineered by Christopher Palmer and Christopher Bishop (for example, the Elgar Coronation Ode). But the BPO was in on the act under HvK as well, and many of his 1970’s EMI records provide excellent examples of four channel sound — not to mention the Berliners being at the top of their game.

HvK recorded the Wagner preludes and overtures many times, including two volumes with EMI in quadraphonic in 1974/75. The engineers were unfortunately not the two Christophers, but rather HvK’s usual EMI team of Glotz and Gülich. The performances themselves are stunning, Wagnerian richness in all its opulence, and with the unmatched power of the BPO driving the drama home.

The sonics are interesting to a further degree. I am comparing a U.S. quadraphonic Golden Clouds label 37097, with a Japanese Toshiba EAC-80149, straight stereo. The U.S. quad pressing is roomier, with more of sense of space as the big choruses open up, particularly in the unparalleled reading of the Tannhäuser Overture and Bacchanale. The sound is bass-heavy, as HvK wanted it to be, but the opulence of the strings and horns warm into a genuinely enveloping sound that represents the best of what quadraphonic was — though in contrast to the Toshiba pressing, there is a lack of clean delineation in sound, a homogeneity that HvK’s critics always harped on. Switching between the true SQ decoder on my Sansui 7001 and the “synthesizer surround” function, the brightness perks up, but the three-dimensionality evaporates. And the treble boosts in an uncomfortable way.

Switch to the Toshiba pressing. Gliding silence in the opening of Tannhäuser, but fast-forward to the castanets in the Bacchanale and some of the warmth is gone; in comparison this is almost too clinical, and not without depth — this record is certainly more vivid in the instrumental sectional separation. I have no idea how the master tapes were manipulated in these different pressings but the results are distinctly different in their effect. How the engineers moved between the four channel masters and two channel issues was surely a puzzle (including how they were converted to CD, where many of these recordings come up sounding completely flat). It also seems clear in this case, as with other Toshibas, that the vinyl is simply of superior grade and the surface noise approaches a very impressive zero. It is a rare case where I genuinely can’t choose between the two pressings, and regard them almost as different performances because of the way the reproduce, in four channel or in stereo.

Of the U.K. HMV pressings of these Karajan recordings I have only the Vol. 2 to compare, unfortunately, so can’t directly speak to the dramatic contrasts of Tannhäuser. But in general it is noteworthy that the quadraphonic effect is superior to the U.S. EMI/Angel, in a sense a melding of the stereo Toshiba’s clarity and the EMI quad’s warmth. This is a first pressing, color dog-in-stamp label, and in Meistersinger, for example, the much maligned homogeneity is nowhere to be heard; the melodic line flows seamlessly but not without clarity and distinctness with the emphases on each dramatic turn. (Though that U.S. press has something of a “boom” to it that isn’t here either.) I’ve been actively searching for a Vol. 1 pressing of this same U.K. quad label, to compare that stunning Bacchanale to the two others I describe above.

By way of comparison I turn to Boult, who also recorded the Wagner preludes on EMI/HMV during this same era. His different style is immediately apparent, more straightforward, more even in string phrasing; less emotive than HvK’s soaring crescendos, booming timpani, and heart-wrenching descrescendos, as in the finale to the Meistersinger Overture here. In contrast Boult is noble but decidedly un-Germanic. As I’ve written about his interpretations of other German romantics including Brahms in the Haydn Variations, he feels almost to be channeling Elgar: broad, deep, but ultimately restrained and at key moments, understated.

The pressing I’m listening to here illustrates the best quadraphonic sound of all examples I’ve discussed, which is something of a surprise given that it is a German EMI “Quadraphonie” pressing, 063-02-274. In my experience these German quad pressings do not typically manifest the best of four-channel sound. But as all of this goes to show, the various iterations of this era’s recordings, in and out of four or two-channel, and with varying qualities of vinyl, produced markedly different results. Perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule. The sound genuinely surrounds, and the sense of space is in a completely different category than traditional two-speaker listening. The performances do not match Karajan for drama or excitement, but they inhabit their own distinct, memorable world and are delivered with unparalleled sonics.

A last mention. Backtracking from the quadraphonic era to the early days of stereo, I pulled out my DGG Kubelik record of the Siegfried Idyll (best there is, by the way) which also features some of the shared works on the HvK EMI discs and Boult’s. (The details: DGG 136-228, 1963 recording). I searched long and hard to find a first Hersteller pressing, and one with no noise at all. It could be said that comparing the depth and richness of these early 180 gram pressings to quadraphonic magic is unfair. Listening to this Meistersinger is a very different experience, but the clarity and richness of the BPO is every bid as opulent and redolent as in the 1975 version under their future director. Kubelik finds a blend of Boult’s directness and HvK’s romanticism, which was of course not so much his as it was his orchestra’s, the legacy of Furtwängler and everyone who came before. Culture matters, and just as no orchestra will ever play Johann Strauss as the Vienna Philharmonic, no orchestra will ever play Wagner like Berlin. It is in their musical DNA, their interpretive culture, and the recordings let us share in that genetic, interpretive process.

A New Favorite: The 1957 Karajan Haydn Variations

Rarely do I discover a recording of a work that completely replaces my prior understanding of the piece, and becomes the “new favorite.” It’s happening now, with the 1957 Haydn Variations that is the b-side of the Karajan Schubert Unfinished I blogged about a couple of days ago.

The Philharmonia recordings from this era all have a special feel to them, not just in the sonics, but also the bouyancy of the music making. Brahms here is distinctly English, noble but not heavy or wrought wrought with Romantic Sehnsucht — the emotional longing that characterizes the German art of the age.

This is more like Elgar and Enigma, with each Variation a unique personality, with the original theme woven in and around it, in a far more precise and elegant way here than in any of HvK’s three Berlin recordings, though prior to finding this Philharmonia version I favored the 1976. In Variation VI, there is Dennis Brain soaring above the orchestra, propelling the music forward. How much of this is melodic (and instrumental) clarity we owe to Walter Legge’s engineering magicianship one cannot say. But that this 54 year old piece of plastic is producing such glorious noise is truly a wonder. (By comparison, Barbirolli in Vienna, a decade later, sounds overbearing and heavy…in the Sofiensaal!)

HvK and the Philharmonia give us an absolutely glorious, joyous final Variation — a completely different experience than it become under him in Berlin, where drama and Sehnsucht took over. I cannot help imagine that the British band is channeling Elgar and Enigma and the final Variation there: Not a finale, but a some of the parts.

Beni Mora

I discovered Holst’s Beni Mora through the superb Naxos recording with David Lloyd Jones, available in segments on YouTube, which has astounding sonics that match the drama of this underappreciated masterpiece. The orchestral color is every bit as vivid as The Planets. The offerings on vinyl are limited, with Boult’s Lyrita the best I’ve heard. Lloyd-Jones still wins…can we get Naxos to press a copy on 180 gram? While we’re at it, can we reach Edward Said from the world beyond and have him write the liner notes? I don’t have a copy of Orientalism, but Amazon look-inside tells me there are zero hits for Holst. But surely this would have interested him, given his love of Classical music and its role in culture.

Currently listening to a 10″ mono Beni Mora from Sargent and the BBCSO. It’s an Odeon label, dated 1958, and probably only exists in mono. The only discography I can find, at Wikipedia, doesn’t indicate stereo/mono. Sargent’s always seemed a bit bland to me, especially compared to his fellow Brits Boult or certainly Barbirolli.

His Beni Mora is interesting, somewhat slower than either Boult or Lloyd-Jones, but also a bit jauntier and rhythmic. Still, this one goes into the eBay auction pile. If you’re a vinyl-only person, go with Sir Adrian.