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Fine recordings from the end of Boult's distinguished recording career,
This review is from: Elgar: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, In the South, Serenade for Strings, Introduction & Allegro (Audio CD)
These performances, well recorded in fulsome sound, from the 1970's were Boult's last word on the two symphonies. At the time of their first release they were much applauded as a summation of his life's experience as an Elgarian conductor. They were not his first recordings however and since then there has been some doubt as to which of his recordings are really the actual best. One thing is generally agreed however, and that is that the recorded sound of these last discs is the best.
The previous studio set was made in the late 1960's by Lyrita and this has now become available once more and stands in direct competition to this EMI release. There has been criticism about the placing of all the violins to the left of Boult, a decision insisted upon by Lyrita much to the chagrin of Boult himself. This has inevitable sonic implications as does the additional age. However the consensus of those who now own the latest release of the Lyrita recording is that Boult was that bit younger at the time and that the performances simply have more vigour. This alone makes the Lyrita more favoured by a sizeable section of the collecting community.
In addition there are other 'live' performances as well as earlier studio recordings but the main choice will in most cases be between the Lyrita and the current EMI discs. Since writing this EMI issue review I have bought and reviewed the Lyrita alternative and that review is added to this one as a footnote.
In the meanwhile it can be confidently asserted that these later discs by Boult offer a wealth of experience in his typically thoughtful, slightly cool manner. Cool is a comparative term and simply means not as emotionally driven as Barbirolli for example. This slight distancing of the emotional element gives these recordings an added air of restrained nobility, of a considered sense of National pride and inevitability in terms of the journey to conclusive conclusions. These are deeply satisfying recordings of both symphonies as well as the extra works which stand playing repetition with ease. Nothing is forced or made to sound awkward and it is easy to identify with the sentiments of the performances in the way they are laid before us.
The element of personal expression, of musical soul as Elgar himself put it is not Boult's way in these recordings. It may be more apparent in the Lyrita set but I suspect not. What I am expecting there is a marginally more vibrant delivery of much the same message. I will be adding a footnote to this review when I have studied the Lyrita discs as well as writing a review of the Lyrita discs with some reference to these (now done - see below).
In the meantime I would suggest that this set of the symphonies and other works represents a view of Elgar which collector's ought not to ignore or do without. Boult was an undoubted expert as regards Elgar and his recordings deserve to be included in all collections. This pair of discs will not disappoint and will be benchmark recordings for many regardless of the Lyrita option.
footnote: The Lyrita alternative
These performances from 1968 were well recorded at that time and sound very good indeed on this CD issue. There is no need to hesitate on grounds of recording quality when considering which of the two most recent studio Boult options to buy. In terms of orchestral layout there is a difference that Boult himself complained about and that is for this Lyrita recording the engineers insisted that the violins would be grouped together on the left whereas the EMI recoding splits the first and second violins on either side of the conductor as Boult would normally do. This may matter to some listeners but it did not bother me.
As regards the performances themselves, what is striking is not so much the difference in timings per movement, but more the similarities. Taking the first symphony the timings are for Lyrita: 18.28; 7.14; 10.27; 12.24 and EMI: 18.33; 7.14; 10.53; 12.01. For the second symphony the timings for Lyrita are: 16.31; 13.17; 8.26; 12.58 and the EMI timings are: 17.29; 14.13; 8.00; 13.15. In general we can see that the two recordings of the first symphony are very similar with the second symphony being generally slower in the EMI version.
However, total timings are only a broad observation. What is very apparent are the differences within each movement and this is where those who maintain that the earlier set is more vibrant really have a case. Essentially Boult extracts greater impact from his orchestra in nearly all the quicker sections of both symphonies so that the effect is one of more drama and more forward momentum. This is more to do with short span rather than sustained differences in basic tempi. However, it is also a valid observation that in the EMI set the slower sections of both symphonies arguably have an extra weight and breadth giving an enhanced sense of nobility and the epic. This is helped by the warmer and deeper sound-stage of the later EMI recording.
Overall I am pleased to own both sets and will certainly not be deleting my EMI set in favour of my newly acquired Lyrita set. What comes over to me is that Boult has very special things to say about both symphonies and expressed these core ideas with different emphasis in the two recordings which nevertheless share the same basic interpretive concept.
I would suggest that collectors will want to own both sets and will be suitably rewarded for their financial outlay by additional musical illumination and satisfaction. Others interested in a single set can safely choose either and those who already own one or other of the sets can rest easy. However, for those purchasers looking for a single set of Boult interpretations, my suggestion is that the Lyrita set has the edge - just.