Henry Wood, pictured here with his taller friend Rachmaninoff ‘neath a Monte Rio redwood, was Mr. Proms, conducting the famous London institution for almost fifty years, and with a mountainous repertoire extending from Mahler to Moszkowski, Ravel to Rubbra, Handel to Schoenberg and that doesn’t mean just Verklaerte Nacht. I’m tempted to say he conducted everything but Krszmaly’s Symphony of Silence, that being an hilarious invention of the great music critic Ernest Newman. He was handy with symphonies, concertos, marches, overtures and all manner of lollipops; he knew how to catapult a piece over the footlights, whatever its dimensions. His style was robust, direct, good-natured while never trivial; it had a healthy grace and imagination was prized. When some years ago I discussed oldtime conductors with Willy van den Burg who’d been Stokowski’s first cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra around 1930 he likened Wood to Pierre Monteux for his versatility, dependability, his wonderful spirit.

Sir Henry was invited by the Boston Symphony to be its musical director in 1918 but he declined, his heart lay in England. Henry Wood, especially with that meddlesome J., wasn’t blessed with a conductor’s name. It lacked the mellifluous ring of Sir Hamilton Harty, the almost Gilbertian flourish of Sir Malcolm Sargent, the aristocratic finality of Sir Thomas Beecham, suggesting instead some workmanlike parliamentarian or a Midlands factory boss. But he was a man of music through and through. You could, perhaps, catch him in a Blimpish phrase now and then, but not often.

Certainly not in his biting, puckish, incandescent Beethoven Third Leonore overture, his bubbling and luminous overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor, his springy Beethoven Fifth which has a “just right” feel about it, complete with a near-Nikisch expansion of that second subject fanfare into utter REGALITY . . . and when Sir Henry launches the finale it’s not only with a momentarily reduced tempo to heighten pomp but a super-brassy buzz in the trombones that makes his orchestra sound like some wonderful machine vibrating vigorously, its metal breathing. It’s as if we were listening to an erector set of instruments. And then of course one remembers the great Mengelberg brass buzz in Amsterdam.

In that Third Leonore I love the way Beethoven’s juicy long notes in the second theme lie down obligingly so they can be run over by crescendoing little triplets in neighboring instruments, this thanks to a nice tempo reduction on Sir Henry’s part. Also, he takes clear note of the fact the second trumpet call signalling Rescue — the villain Pizarro has been trying to murder Florestan and coming very close to success — is, in the dungeon scene of Fidelio’s second act if not in the score of this overture (where the marking is always a piacere) directed to sound more loudly than the first, and with said direction in mind Sir Henry conspires with an equally exuberant recording engineer to have the second call played in the gramophonic listener’s lap!

Enough, as Sir Henry would have said, to “make the ladies jump.”

And in the scherzo of his Eroica, from measure 143 not long before the trio, his comic profiling of the tiptoeing quarters rising sequentially in the violas suggests nothing so much as a stealthy burglar prowling the innards of Beethoven’s score. Wood’s list of credits also includes a warm Haydn Farewell Symphony – incidentally, he programmed symphonies nos. 22, 31 and 60 as well as Clocks and Surprises – and a stalwart, plain-Jane but exciting Schubert Unfinished highlighted by Sir Henry’s ecstatic cantabile (a word, that, which Schubert felt no need to spell out!) in the soaring closing theme of the second movement. Brahms in the first third of the twentieth century was considered a “difficult” composer but in due course Sir Henry made him a Prom staple and if there are no recordings of the symphonies there’s a Haydn Variations that comes on all plump and jolly, as if an old Empirian of the Nigel Bruce sort (remember him as Dr. Watson?) were telling us a story.

Elgar of course was a staple – England’s finest composer of the time called Sir Henry “a giant” and right he was – and the Wood recording of the Enigma Variations is especially interesting for the way in which Sir Henry with a slowish andante legato e sostenuto at the start captures the halting, searching quality of a Theme deliberately brought by its composer to something approaching paralysis with frequent rests and tenuti, this before a happy turn to the major.

But the best of all in the Woodsian annals is a “live” 1936 performance of the violin-viola Sinfonia Concertante of Mozart. The unrushed rubato-dipped reverence of the slow movement in which the BBC Symphony’s fabulous first viola Bernard Shore is a crucial participant is nothing less than spellbinding.

The same Shore-not-Shaw wrote one of the best books ever on the art of conducting, The Orchestra Speaks, and what it says about Sir Henry in rehearsal speaks, as they say, volumes. Here is the Sir Henry who, Shore wrote in 1938, took as much trouble with “a work that is unintelligible and irritating as over a masterpiece.” His stick, known to the players as “that stick!”, was foolproof, Shore says, because when he started the Proms he didn’t have a highly trained orchestra of picked musicians. As the players got better that stick with its perpetual clarity still saved many rehearsal minutes in the face of a staggering repertoire and economy-minded preparation times.

“Utterly different from Weingartner’s stiff poise,” Shore writes, Wood’s way of capturing the musicians’ full attention was to hold his long white baton loosely at the fingertips and use it to direct all time and nuance without the help of the left hand. This is interesting: “With some conductors,” Shore writes, “the elbow has to be observed – the stick is merely delusive. And there are famous conductors who use their batons stiffly and awkwardly, obtaining their results from personality and magnetism. But Sir Henry, for all purposes of ensemble, relies completely on the extreme tip of his baton . . . his stick is not just a time-beater, but with its big sweep or tiny movement it controls dynamics as well. It is extremely flexible and, at the sudden division into subdivided beats, a model of clarity.” And sometimes Sir Henry traded his baton for an exhortation from out in the hall in his quite trebly voice which, his first viola writes, could penetrate a factory in full blast . . . Meanwhile a “footnote” – in his Thoughts on Conducting, another excellent book, Sir Adrian Boult whom we shall meet again later on writes that the point of Toscanini’s stick “said nothing special; it was simply that it swung along in an irresistible way naturally, with that tremendous mind and concentration behind it. But it did not swing along in an expressive way or a way that in itself could have contributed a great deal to the performance.”

. . . And now I’ve just come into possession of a broadcast of Opening Night of the 1943 Proms, June 19 to be exact, in which Sir Henry led the London Philharmonic in as creative and effervescent a  Theme and Variations from Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite as you will ever experience. Totally alive and kicking it is — even though its conductor was not in the best of health — with lovely little rubati. Call it a Son of Nutcracker performance of this ever balletic music, before a cheering crowd in the faithful, and undisturbed, Royal Albert Hall. Two days earlier Frances Partridge the great Bloomsbury diarist had noted, “Our invasion of Sicily has been the new development in the war, moving at first with great speed, then in what seems agonizing slow motion . . . “ Sir Henry of course remained above the vagaries of history’s tempi. Here’s a good story: a distinguished fellow conductor said to him during one Proms season: “Dear fellow, I can’t understand how you do these concerts night after night.” “No,” Sir Henry responded, “you’d be dead in a fortnight.”

Allow me another “encore”: In his 1928 Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture our chief Promenader takes advantage of the pp arrival of supporting flutes at 142 to tamp down the violins’ “second theme” melody to an echo of its original piano self four bars back. Not exactly by the book, and charming!