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Great performances in need of a good modern transfer
on 13 January 2010
First the bad news. Despite having a sticky label emblazoned with"Digitally Remastered at 96kHz" on the box cover the recorded sound appears (to my middle-aged ears) identical to that on the old Belart re-issues of the mid-1990s. This means that upper frequencies are often thin with an unpleasant ting or ziz to the sound. To make matters worse, on occasion, one has the aural equivalence of listening to the performance while looking down the wrong end of a telescope, with a constricted dynamic range to the sound stage and general lack of body to the sound. While FFRR (full frequency range recording) technique used by Decca in the early 1950s was lauded in its day as peak of realism, these recordings could benefit from some serious intervention of the kind given by Pristine Audio and Dutton Laboratories and that does not appear to have occurred here.
Despite this grouch the vast majority of buyers will be drawn to the `classic' status of these performances. Those who know Boult from his later EMI recordings (of these works and others) might be in for a bit of shock. The Adrian Boult of the late 1940s and early 1950s was not yet a `grand old man' but a highly experienced conductor capable of generating enormous thrust and dynamism from his orchestra, yet this is allied to a peerless grasp of symphonic structure. Listen (for example) to the opening of `A Sea symphony' to get some idea of this. From the opening B flat minor brass fanfare, followed by the choir singing Behold, the sea... Boult achieves a tremendous sense of onward momentum yet he never loses sight of the movement's proportions so that when this phase returns in the major its impact is quite overwhelming.
While Boult brings these qualities to the whole cycle some performances inevitably stand out. My list would not differ substantially from other reviewers here. The `Sea', `London', `Pastoral' and Fifth symphonies are practically definitive. No other conductor captures the enormous feeling of loss embodied in the slow movement of the Pastoral (V-W's real war symphony) like Boult. To this I would add the eighth symphony; how well Boult gets it to work as a symphony.
Let downs? The sixth is only a weak performance if you judge it by the lights of the world premier recording Boult made for HMV (in much better sound). Here, a slightly less than devilish approach to the scherzo is the only weakness for me. In the fourth, Boult seems to baulk at the demonic nature of the music, something which V-W certainly did not do in his 1937 recording with the BBC Symphony. (In Boult's defense, who else has got within haling distance of the composer's own interpretation?). The ninth could have done with another rehearsal. Finally, I am unconvinced by the spoken additions to the Sinfonia Antartica (wonderful as it is to hear John Gielgud) and would look to Bernard Haitink to give full measure to this still underrated work.
To sum up five stars for Boult and his fellow musicians but keep an eye out for other transfers now that these recording have fallen out of copyright.