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.
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I can remember the reception that these recordings had when they were first issued in the late 1970's. It was said then, and it has been oft repeated, that these performances were the culmination of a life-time's association with these great works, the summing up of Sir Adrian's view of them. Whilst they are wonderfully broad and expansive, even luxurious accounts, I don't think that they can be viewed as Sir Adrian's best recorded performances, even though they were most certainly his last word. He was by then in his late eighties and physically frail. I think that he simply could not summon the drive and energy that can be heard in his earlier recordings (he recorded the second symphony five times). The Lyrita recordings, made just a few years earlier than these final EMI ones, are, in my view, superior in every way. Those who buy these EMI recordings will surely not be disappointed, but they should not, I feel, be seen as the definitive Boult interpretations.
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I didn't like Elgar's symphonies until I listened to this recording. The recordings I started with, Judd/Halle and Hurst/BBC, did nothing for me, and put me off Elgar for years. Other versions I have listened to since (Barbirolli, Otaka, ...) also had little impact. I prefer this recording by Boult above others he has recorded. Boult had a unique voice, and vast experience of working with Elgar, which makes him essential to these works. Plus he had a great orchestra at his peak, and great sound engineers. The power and sororities are unmatched in I and IV, the dynamism of II is amazing. The tempo flows throughout, there is no fussing.The transitions are handled with aplomb in a very natural fashion. Altogether this is by far the most elegant and unaffected version of this symphony I have heard. Everything I have said about the first symphony also applies to the second symphony and other pieces. We aren't a desert, we are an island, and this should be our disk.
Please note: my remarks are only on this recording of Symphony No 2.
Terms like 'burnished', 'noble', 'glorious', 'majestic', 'dignified' most easily come to mind listening to Boult's magisterial final recording (1975/76) of this magnificent twentieth century symphony.
The playing of the LPO allows Sir Adrian's vision to be expressed to perfection - though 'playing' somehow seems altogether the wrong word in this context! The recorded sound is among the finest of EMI's best - with great clarity and real depth.
There are however subtle aspects of this emotionally multifaceted masterpiece that seem to belong to a world Boult did not inhabit. Elgar said that he had `showed himself' in this symphony. There are passages where Elgar allows us to feel the depths of personal despair, dark self-doubt, desperately unfulfilled longings - indeed 'rarely, rarely' did Elgar seem to have the joy of the of 'spirit of delight'!
Perhaps Sir Adrian's view is of a symphony of national, rather than personal, biography. For this approach no one surpasses Boult in this culmination of his life-long advocacy of the work.
But Elgar's concept and achievement are far greater than a nationalistic epitaph. The symphony inhabits the fraught and enigmatic world of the inner-self fully as much as those of Mahler, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky's 4th, 5th and 6th - not to mention the music of Berg and Schoenberg. To take us into that elusive inner world we need to follow (among others) Sir Colin Davis (LSO, 2001), Sir Malcolm Sargent (BBC Music BBC MM280) and, above all, Sir John Barbirolli (1965).
PS Odd how the symphonies of Sir Edward will forever be bound to a round (turn)table of musical knights - Sir Adrian, Sir John, Sir Malcolm, Sir Colin, Sir Andrew, Sir Georg, Sir Yehudi (later Lord) Menuhin - we are deeply indebted to them all.
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I bought this for Boult's recording of the first symphony, which I regarded as the best I had heard, and was stunned to find the account of the second symphony was even better. I would put it on a par with Colin Davis' outstanding and deeply moving performance of it at the Proms in 2006. If you love Elgar's music and symphonies of the romantic period, as I do, you can't do any better than to acquire this supreme coupling.
if you like your elgar full of pride and pathos, passion and tenderness, beautifully phrased, played by one the best orchestras in the wordl, and with the peerles boult at the helm, this is the collection for you.
in particular his interpretation of the 2nd symphony is so majestic and so right....listen to the second movement and you have the epitome of elgar, so magnificently played and unfolded by boult...
the smaller pieces are all brlliant, and overall this is a 2 cd set to cherish...the sound is of the best emi vintage, natural and rounded.
you will not regret buying the 2 cd set.
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