Top critical review
30 September 2015
This boxed set features remastered recordings made towards the end of the conductor’s life with a variety of orchestras, mostly the London Philharmonic. They were made between 1967 and 1975.
Despite receiving the composer’s own imprimatur I do not find Boult’s interpretations of VW’s symphonies necessarily the best or the most convincing. Many of my criticisms are better directed at the producers and engineers rather than the conductor, but one would have hoped that Boult’s own reputation was such that he would have possessed a certain amount of clout in ensuring that what was issued was up to the highest standards possible.
There are problems, for instance, in the opening five seconds of the very first symphony. The initial fanfare is marvellously crystal clear but the subsequent entry of the choir and full orchestra is muddled in its sound quality. Despite the remastering, it is like listening to two different recordings. In this symphony, the baritone John Carol Case is on fine form, effortlessly coping with the dynamics of the music; unfortunately, the soprano Sheila Armstrong occasionally struggles. Overall, Boult’s here is a plodding and safe performance. Although it comes alive in the final movement, it is overall uninspiring.
There is more plodding in the second symphony. Its disc has the extra of the ‘Tallis Fantasia’, which is treated too reverently, and thus seems too distant from the listener. Boult’s interpretation of the third symphony is the fastest in my collection: the first movement is quiet and hushed but certainly not sluggish; the second continues the haunting atmosphere; even the third has a measure of restraint (Boult never ever seems to let rip); whilst the finale’s opening sustained timpani roll is barely discernible. Here we have a welcome distinctive and dignified reading that made me know the symphony that little bit more. The downside is that the Brucknerian apotheosis towards the end lacks weight.
The fourth is rendered perfunctory, lacking any conviction. The sound is thin too, lacking augmentation: I simply do not feel the weight that the first movement should be throwing at the listener, and the second movement is laboured. As for the fifth symphony, Boult is lacklustre in the first movement. It is as if the body is dead to the world rather than being hallowed. Life returns in the second movement’s scherzo but the ensuing lento is let down by poor sound quality.
The sixth suffers from a slow and ponderous opening movement, and yet Boult goes to the opposite extreme in the second: it is too fast, too disrespectful to the music’s inner mystery. As for the finale, it’s quite an embarrassment with its bum notes. In contrast, the seventh is impressive in communicating its architecture and dynamics, but is wobbly in places with more bum notes. Interpretation trumps performance. The disc includes the ‘Wasps Suite’ as an extra. No problems with the performance here: it’s worth five stars!
Boult’s eighth has a hard edge and plenty of commitment. The same can be said for the ninth, but it flounders in the opening movement. Here there seems no disciplined structure to the drama, which is why Previn beats Boult every time. There are two further discs: the first includes other orchestral pieces, most of which possess clear and bright playing and betray some welcome immediacy. The last disc of the set has a great rare performance of the 1946 concerto for two pianos, recast from the original 1930 piano concerto, as well as a rendition of ‘Job’, which VW dedicated to Boult.
But after listening to this set, I conclude that essentially Boult is bland: his interpretations are competent but lack colour. He plays what is on the page. He is a mechanic, not an inspiration. Apart from the third and seventh symphonies I have more to criticise than praise. Boult obvious has some value in a historical sense, due to his closeness to the composer, but I would recommend that anyone looking for a set of his symphonies look elsewhere. Previn certainly remains a favourite for me, but Richard Hickox’s set for Chandos is also up there as one of the best.