SIR ADRIAN BOULT

1889-1983

In a 1997 diary entry in his Untold Stories that fun and bittersweet playwright Alan Bennett writes of hearing the last movement of Elgar’s First Symphony on the wireless and being put in mind of “some huge submerged mass coming to the surface” and wondering what this meant. England? . . . Destiny? . . . And from that magnificent conundrum he shades to his lower middleclass boyhood in Leeds, a geeky music lover living in the provinces to which came now and then “fabled creatures from the world of the wireless: Sargent [that’s Sir Malcolm], Barbirolli [the great Sir John] and even Beecham.” And of course there was Sir Adrian Boult. “So famished was I for fame I must be one of the few boys who could have seen [him] as in any sense an exotic and even a glamorous figure.” He looked, says Bennett, Edwardian, with an Elgar moustache; he could have been one of those inflexible generals conducting the First World War. And Bennett writes of Boult’s eschewing any emotion on the podium, thus gaining him entrance into his “pantheon of non-histrionics” including the poet A.E. Housman, the novelist E.M. Forster, “and in the manner of crossing deserts Wilfred Thesiger.” But Sir Adrian was not unduly burdened by the “puritan impediment” charming Neville Cardus saw ever hovering over the English musical scene.

Cross cut now to Bernard Shore’s The Orchestra Speaks – Shore, you recall, was the first viola sitting under Sir Adrian’s prominent nose in the BBC Symphony in the Thirties – and we’re in Sir Adrian’s mind. “[It] seems,” wrote Shore, “to brood over the score from a height, surveying all its essential features like the peaks of a mountain range seen from a certain distance. The proportions are thus truly discerned, with the greatest peaks duly towering above the rest.” And if you turn from Shore’s book and place on the turntable Boult’s 78s of Brahms’ Tragic Overture, a performance I grew up on with constant satisfaction and in which Shore of course participated, your reward will be a perfect confirmation of what the violist speaks: this urgent and wistful performance is notable for its dynamic range and care, its artful projection of everything you want and need to hear, when you want and need to hear it (until, that is, the next fascinating and effective performance). Every button is immaculately in place so to speak, as on the uniforms of those brush moustached Great War generals. But this is not a pompous or cold performance. The BBC sounds, in fact, rather like a grand and friendly organ, lovingly tended.

Boult, Shore adds, stood very still on the podium, “quite comfortable with about six inches of room on either side of him . . . by restraint and complete control over his emotions [which, we must underline, he had aplenty] he doubles his power when all is wanted.” And that’s how you get those crescendos like a Flying Scotsman out of King’s Cross steaming round the bend.The elegance, the lack of windmilling on the podium, does this point to our previous chapter’s Fritz Reiner? Well yes, somewhat, there is an overlap in grace and good planning. But in Boult I don’t think you find that combination which could lead the innocent onlooker to believe the Great Fritz shared somewhat the sensibilities of both a genius Think Tanker at Princeton or Cambridge and a Hell’s Angel jamming his motorcycle’s nose into the air on a crowded street. If Reiner’s intensity can at times be as positively terrifying as it is effective the architectural plans of his careful long-range, moment-studded interpretive structures hover regularly above us like subliminal super-titles on an Opera House proscenium.

Sir Adrian’s repertoire was extensive, his discography large. Picking at random, I’ve come up with a Rachmaninoff Third Symphony with the London Philharmonic, to which Boult fled when he was unceremoniously sacked from the BBC upon turning 60, a bureaucrat’s end-point. Lovely ensemble, neat articulation, these are joys here — even to the point of exposing in the finale a shaky transitional moment where, on the road to subject 2, this glorious composer who could concoct a masterful five minutes of teasingly unresolved harmony settled in a less challenging setting for second best. But most stunning of all is the tone of the strings early in the slow movement, not a glamorous sound so much as a beautiful sound, violins doing what they were born to do in tenderly rapturous music climbing to the heights. I hear less erotic (yes, erotic!) liftoff in the recording wherein the composer himself pilots this passage on the golden-honeyed and resultingly heavy wings of a distinctly glamorous Philadelphia Orchestra – not nearly as bad as being hit by birds, of course.

Now Sir Adrian had a reputation as a pure conductor, Bernard Shore felt that he preferred being an “almost impersonal medium” between composer, musicians and audience. But look to his enchanting Beethoven Eroica with a pick-up London orchestra of the Fifties and you’ll see that this performance could not have happened without the happy intrusion of a pronounced personality, that of a very genial fellow whose sense of humor as well as compassion could not be washed away by a spit-and-polish worthy of some orchestral sergeant major or model major general. Call him a kindly god sitting as Shore would confirm on his puffy cloud, thinking up from that vantage point an Eroica that surely confounded this chronicler as he set it on his Garrard without much enthusiasm for yet another (they appear almost weekly!) Beethoven Third.

Sir Adrian’s first decision in movement 1 is to elect a rather leisurely base tempo of 48 as opposed to the composer’s crazy 60 to the minute. An Early Late Klemperer tempo you might say, vintage 1955, and other Gods have taken it too. This speed, along with clearly perceptible and absolutely organic retardations, facilitates a certain serenity and radiance as well as giving a juicy breadth and dramatic penetration to counterpoints in the development. Also, it bathes our ears in the Authority of One Who Does Not Protest Too Much. This, you must have guessed, is not one of those delightfully neurotic Eroica openers in the Mengelberg mold, but it is fascinating enough that no neurosis is necessary. And positively therapeutic into the bargain, so mellow it is. If the tempo primo chosen for movement 1 is considerably below the number-of-the-page, well, the scherzo, which sounds a bit slow, is spot on the composer’s marking. And perhaps Beethoven knew exactly what he was hearing here because Boult/Beethoven’s 116 to the measure allows the movement to come on playfully secretive and balletic. It’s all very precise, and very amusing.

Then best of all perhaps is a finale in which foot nicely on brake and tongue generously in cheek combine to produce 1) a theme suggesting a peacock of a cuckoo clock doing its hourly thing, 2) a suspenseful first variation enjoying immensely the comedy of piano-forte-crescendo-fermata at close quarters, 3) in the next variation a maximally chattery path for triplet staccato mid-strings, 4) a child’s prideful swing in the rocking dolce of the next after that. And so on! The poco andante is not especially slow, it’s almost as if Boult were blending it in with the relatively broad allegro (Beethoven’s allegro molto) that precedes it. But a consuming lilt keeps the great oboe solo from skimping on the needed Poetic . . . as, we might add,  it interrupts an allegro no more rollicking here than its composer may well have intended!

Now before going on stop the press a moment, I have to be fair and square with Mr. Rachmaninoff and tell you, since I’ve just listened to the finale of his Third Symphony again, that he was obviously aware of the slight recalcitrance of that marginally dumpy transition, so he’s very careful in his Philadelphia recording to dance through it with an elfin scintillation. So we may have caught Sir Adrian in a rare moment of not being echt hip. Or perhaps it’s the author’s face that’s red. But onward. I can’t wait to tell you about Sir Adrian’s handsome recordings of Wagnerian opera excerpts. Actually let’s start with A Faust Overture dating from 1974 when Boult was half way through his ninth and not quite last decade. When I was in sixth or seventh grade my grammar master at San Francisco’s Town School for Boys, the punctilious Ed Rich, proposed we little brats pretend we were one or another inanimate object of choice, pencil, hairbrush, whatever, and write a little essay on life as seen from the vantage point of said probably homely object. Quite fun, this, for a chubby lad with hidden literary aspirations. Well, I can’t think of anything better than to be the tip of Sir Adrian’s baton tracing the elegant rustlings, transcendent glows and luminous tiptoeings of this Schumannesque score and producing with its flight, in Abbey Road Studio Number One!, a plummy performance more sane perhaps than feverish as is sometimes this overture’s reward but smooth, powerful, a joy to hear.

But if Sir Adrian’s Faust is very good indeed, his Rienzi overture, another octogenarial outing with the LPO, is a revelation. Previous favorites of mine, the undulant Weingartner and a startlingly intense NBC broadcast by Guido Cantelli, will have to make room for this one on my Rienzi hit parade. Obviously Boult took from his observation post a very, very good look at this extravagant warhorse, seeing for instance pianissimi standing clearly on the page but not always read by conductors bitten by the addictive Big Legato. The mellifluous grovelings of cellos and basses from the twelfth bar have rarely struck me as so despairing – I think Sir Adrian finds the key to this state of affairs in the succession of crescendi trapped inside Abuian <’s and >’s and unable to get out. Except they do shade after a bit into that lovely savior of a Tune, the tune with a turn, molto legato ed espressivo, at measure 19. And now, because Boult takes this supression-resistant confection of low-lying massed strings at a serious suggestion of the score’s pianissimo – at least you can almost see him like a traffic bobbie coaxing the orchestra to shun more than a mezzo piano – well, given this care, Wagner’s trophy tune in its understated while indubitably handsome Boultian guise takes on a fascinating aura of femininity — femininity in the classic and perhaps somewhat sexist sense of evoking the fragile, willowy Maiden of many a composer’s, and conductor’s, dreams.

If this tune were an item of food surely it would be an heirloom tomato, at the height of its season. Well, whatever . . . let’s go a bit further on and the crescendo to the fortissimo statement of our wonderful Tune has Boult pulling out all available stops. Melody galore here, and if this were a Wedding March as it vaguely suggests, the bride and groom would skip the reception and head for their room, on the wings of post-Mendelssohnian SOUND. Also to like are the jauntiness of the heel-kicking music cum triangle beginning bar 155, near the six minute mark, and no one should argue with the fact that the overture’s final mile is very active, very melodioso-percussioso, while eschewing 12-out-of-10 intensity.

More vintage Wagner from Boult: excerpts from Parsifal with the LSO claiming a seamless golden elegance, strings and brass alike flowing as smoothly as melted butter. At least one literary vagabond who’s spent the night sleeping on a bed of straw in a cow byre has written of the pleasantly enveloping effect of reclining near the warm breath of animals. This recording surely doesn’t have drowsiness as its intended effect, but it certainy exudes a warm breath no less grand for having something in common with a rather haunting pastoral sensation recorded by that Bloomsbury figure Mr. Gerald Brenan . . . And with the New Philharmonia Orchestra the numerically if not artistically elderly Sir Adrian made a recording of the Tannhaeuser Overture in which an attractively lugubrious introduction shades into a quick and quivering allegro. I suspect that Boult’s mentor the great Nikisch may have given him the idea, where the cellos come in at the end of bar 16, of phrasing their upbeat with a tiny pause between the initial dotted note and its smaller follower, allowing that second note thereby to seem to give the following half note a tiny kick. And speaking of Nikisch . . . “it was said,” Boult has written, “that the first bar of Tristan was enough to enable anyone to recognize blindfold the warmth and beauty of the tone which unmistakeably showed that Nikisch was conducting.” Proof positive here that Sir Adrian knew a good thing to emulate. No, repeat no conductor in the modern gramophonic age has charmed us with more attractive sounds from the arms and mouths of orchestral players.

Rewind forty years now, we’re back at the BBC, and a choice Mozart Jupiter at that time was Sir Adrian’s recording for HMV/Victor. Sprightly and transparent is the opening movement, its second subject gliding in with a light pathos. The atmosphere is borderline buffo and the cavortings of the ensemble in The Marriage of Figaro don’t seem very far away — any savvy conductor of course could make this connection. Beautiful sound in the andante cantabile takes the form of a gauzy romantical string tone: we’re in wistful/hopeful territory emotionally speaking and Boult enjoys the trip. Part of the package is an exquisite retard into the recapitulation, a rare Boult moment. Then the minuet, gentle and luminous, expressive of Boult’s upbeat personality. But professional that he was he could do bleakness to a turn when required. The Fifties recording of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony is case in point, Sir Adrian spares us nothing of the wasteland poetry, not to mention the epic element, of the long and devastating opening movement. No surprise, he maintains momentum in this music that steps into outer space where the footing is chancy. Then deadpan as a Swiss banker he presides idiomatically over the doodly-noodly scherzo with its not entirely innocent aura, and the finale’s giddyup Marx Bros. close is elegantly delivered.

Another important LPO recording from the Fifties is Sir Adrian’s Mahler First. Bright and swinging, immaculately articulated, a thing of handsome song and dance as much or more than drama, an essay in sonority more, say, than suspense, this is perhaps the most refreshing Mahler 1 in the annals, a Bernini fountain of bella musica. The same, by the way, could be said for a recording by Sir Adrian of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. And his Sibelius! — capital stuff, a sonic National Geographic for your CD player.

But back to Brahms: I’ve made friends with a late period Brahms Third with the LSO which doesn’t claim a wide range of dramatic evocation, its pinstriped pilot preferring to take the role of good symphonic knight in shining orchestral garb, focusing on relatively abstract joys. So perhaps it’s not a performance that would have won over Tchaikovsky who met “the very charming” Brahms for lunch in Hamburg the day after a performance of Tchai 5 and got quite happily drunk with him but upon reflection felt his German colleague’s music lacked “poetry” and “never expresses anything.” But those joys of form and tone and shape can be quite remarkable. I can’t remember when in the second subject of movement 1 the clarinet’s p grazioso has so clearly & neatly dropped to the composer’s pianissimo after those first long bars of 9/4 – this at bar 38 – a bonus being the sweet distance-ness, and I mean sweet in the sense of charming or ethereal rather than sugary, of the supporting and space-separated notes in the flute played at a true pp. Boult inhabits the enchantment of that flute no less than Flaubert the sun, wind and leaves of the romantic scene in Madame Bovary which he boasted to Louise Colet were absolutely in his bloodstream. This London flute’s ethereality is in fact poetic, a musical illustration of Middleton Murry’s notion that if a writer tries to be precise he or she is bound to be metaphorical.

And no less enchanting is Boult’s unhurried swing through the second subject theme of the finale, as handsomely curved as one could imagine, the key being a highlighting, logically enough, of its pervasively triplety nature: hearing two legato triplets in succession as rolled out of the LSO by Sir Adrian constitutes for me sheer bliss. Lucky I saw this CD staring me in the face at an Edinburgh record shop a couple of years ago. Actually at the time I’d forgotten I owned an earlier Boult Third, with the so-called Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra. Well, the more the merrier. But how curious that the piano-to-pianissimo I’ve just crowed about in the opening movement simply doesn’t happen in this performance. Curiosity has just magnetized me to at least one Toscanini recording of Brahms 3 and I don’t find it there either: this should be enough to make poor Brahms’ head ache with frustration.

Early in 1946 Sir Adrian sailed to America to honor a long extended invitation to conduct the Boston Symphony, with Brahms’ First included. In New York, so his diary reports, he had one lunch with Bruno Walter (“grand to see him . . he seems no older . . is working very hard and loves it”), another with George Szell (“nice creature”), saw the musical Oklahoma! (“a staggering ballet . . pretty good music”), heard Koussevitzky conduct Prokofieff’s new Fifth Symphony (“rather exciting, I think”) and heard Artur Rodzinski conduct the Philharmonic (“afraid I didn’t care for Brahms No. 1 very much”). And looked for golf balls for some of his BBC musicians. This we know from Michael Kennedy’s excellent Boult biography.

Boult the diarist says the Boston Brahms 1 was taken on a short tour and “became more and more Koussevitzkyish and I couldn’t stop it” (the BSO had few guest conductors in those days, they made its music director Koussevitzky nervous, he was of course one of those “European monsters” as Ned Rorem half jokingly calls them in his diary), but presumably the broadcast of 1-19-46 represents the product as originally designed. I remember tuning in this Saturday night broadcast, 5:30 p.m. Pacific time, as a young teenager. I don’t recall being blown away, but then I was probably awaiting my “Mengelberg moment” with Brahms No. 1 three decades up the road. Or perhaps my mother’s coq au vin! What I hear now as an ancient aficionado of the turntable and other vehicles of gramophonic reproduction is that Sir Adrian was essentially on form, producing a characteristically buoyant and precise first movement and an affecting second, but it was only in the final two movements that he finally freed himself from a certain stage fright in the face of this eminent orchestra, Dr. Koussevitzky’s legendary Hot Hundred, darling of RCA Victor, New York critics and so on.  When have those string syncopations under woodwind solos at Letter B in the third movement panted so? The great Koussy in a broadcast eleven months earlier had not seemed so fixed on this passage. And how about the very grand retard Sir Adrian invents for our delectation going into the clarinet tune’s recapitulation at Letter E! Yes, it was doubtless part of his original plan, but even so . . .

In the finale Georges Laurent’s flute slowly pipes its solo in delightfully piercing tones, like a Little Hero after the trauma of the introduction, then the chorale, very broad, shades into an earth-moving crescendo, with the allegro tune taking off rosy as a Sunday joint, trumpets and drums very festive at the animato. Sir Adrian is in his element, his reward a Symphony Hall ovation from many tweedy Harvardians and friends. And we can presume he found a proper sort of golf balls for the BBC’ers back home.

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You have reached the end of the first full posting of these Adventures in Musical Interpretation. The chances are that as you read this paragraph their author with polished diving bell and well-cleaned fishing net is exploring the interpretorial depths of the conductors born in the 1890s; conductors such as breezy Fritz Busch, Carlos Kleiber’s great father Erich (whose crisp rhythm can fool commentators into not hearing his generous rubati), Clemens Krauss who holds the patent on insouciance, Issay Dobrowen that forgotten master of sighs and trances, Dimitri Mitropoulos with his kit bag full of sforzandi, John Barbirolli with his unique and gentle amble in Mahler’s Fourth, Jascha Horenstein whose performances sometimes seem to dwell in a concentration camp of the mind, Artur Rodzinski with his delirium-in-excelsis Wagner . . .