Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Classics: There are few life forces more powerful than the musical instincts of a talented, well-grounded musician


"Neptune, the Mystic," the seventh and last movement of Gustav Holst's ever-popular orchestral suite The Planets, is conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, whose association with the piece spanned 60-plus years, including its first public performance, in 1918.

Holst's imagination was driven, not by planetary astrophysics, but by the mythological associations of the planets' namesakes. In the liner notes for his circa 1967 EMI recording, Sir Adrian had this to say about "Neptune":

In this final movement every instrument is directed to play pianissimo throughout, and the tone is to be "dead", except for one moment near the end, when the clarinet plays a succession of notes which might almost be called a tune in this otherwise tuneless, expressionless, shapeless succession of cloudy harmonies, suggesting as it does an infinite vision of timeless eternity. We spoke of the end but this is inaccurate, for if it is possible for a piece of music never to finish, this is what happens here. A slow, irregular swing between two distant chords fills nearly every bar of the 3+2 meter, and imperceptibly we become conscious that female voices have joined the orchestra. Soon the instruments gradually melt away, and the voices carry on with the two swaying chords, whose diminuendo is prolonged until we wonder whether we still hear them or only hold them in our memory, swinging backward and forward for all time.

by Ken

Recently I mentioned to a friend that I had found -- for $1.99! -- a used copy of the CD of that Boult Planets recording. (It's a good thing it was only $1.99, or I probably wouldn't have bought it. I mean, a CD with a mere 50 minutes of music?) It turned out that I was confused about what I had actually bought -- a fortunate confusion we'll come back to in a moment -- but in this state of confusion I recalled to my friend how important that Angel LP had been to me.

"Everyone had that," he said. And I have no reason to doubt that everyone did.

You have to understand that as a record listener I'm a compulsive multiple-version collector, I guess because I'm so far from believing in "definitive" performances that not even the most exceptional performance seems likely to encompass anything like the range of possibilities built into any truly substantial piece of music. Still, in the case of The Planets, although a few other versions came my way from one source or another, I never felt any strong impulse to seek others out.

I mentioned to my friend that the Boult Planets as freshly reheard seemed even more remarkable than I remembered. People tend to be impressed by the parts of the piece that make the most obvious impression, but those are relatively easy to make sense of. Only the most doltish conductor could fail to "get," for example, the indomitably rousing "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity." But no other conductor I've heard can rivet you the way Sir Adrian does with the hauntingly more intimate sections -- like "Neptune," for one.

(Actually, Sir Adrian points out a trap in "Jupiter" in his liner note. The bustling main theme eventually evolves into a famous broadly lyrical tune. He notes that the composer's daughter, Imogen Holst, a prime champion of her father's work, "has warned us against linking the slow middle section with the patriotic words with which it was later associated. The tune as it stands reflects the good humour of Jupiter, no more, no less." And he has already recalled the composer's description of Jupiter as "one of those jolly fat people who enjoy life." How many conductors of "Jupiter" understand any of this? Contrary to popular impression, Boult was not prone to sentimentalizing.)

I guess I've had Sir Adrian (1889-1983) on my mind since I wrote last week about his ravishing yet disciplined late-in-life recording of Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending, another now-40-year-old recording that sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it did when it was made. Well, maybe I was thinking not so much about Sir Adrian himself as about conductors like him, by which I mean the kind who don't usually pop into mind in discussions of "great" conductors, but whom you consistenly return to, over a wide range of repertory, for the almost unfailing pleasure of their thoroughgoing musicianship.

In the course of thinking about writing about Sir Adrian, or about conductors like him, I started pulling out CDs of his I could think of that I have, including naturally the $1.99 Planets. Imagine my surprise to see that the orchestra credited is the London Philharmonic, and you'd think EMI would know, whereas I remembered pretty conclusively that "my" Boult Planets was recorded with the New Philharmonia. Eventually I pulled the Angel LP off the shelf, for the first time in a long while. It didn't take long to figure out that they're in fact different recordings. Somehow I've managed all these years, I guess because of my satisfaction with the New Philharmonia version, to remain ignorant of the fact that Sir Adrian had yet another go at The Planets, with indeed the LPO, his old orchestra of the '50s, in 1978-79, his final year of recording, when he was approaching his 90th birthday.

I got another surprise when I took a closer look at the jacket of the Angel LP, though this was something I must once have known: that Sir Adrian wrote his own (excellent) liner notes for it, from which I've already quoted above. He started by writing about his association with the piece, beginning at the beginning, before it had ever been performed. He noted that he had corresponded with the composer before meeting Gustav Holst (1874-1934) in 1917. Soon afterward he had his first hearing of The Planets, in an "excellent" two-piano arrangement. And then:

One day in the autumn of 1918 [Holst] rushed into the office where I was doing my war work: "Adrian, I have got to go to Salonika quite soon for the YMCA. Balfour Gardiner, bless him, has given me a parting present consisting of Queen's Hall full of the Queen's Hall Orchestra for the whole of a Sunday morning. We are going to do 'The Planets' and you have got to conduct."

Up to this point, Holst had always felt uncertain as to whether he would ever hear The Planets. Hitherto he had always been accustomed to write appropriate music for special purposes, and it was only here that for the first time he allowed himself everything he wanted: an apparently impossibly large orchestra in a work of symphonic proportions, from one who had hitherto been rather thought of as a miniaturist.

It was on the morning of September 29th, 1918, that I first met the Queen's Hall Orchestra, led by the veteran Maurice Sons [meaning, in our lingo, he was the concertmaster], and this was for me too a new and exciting adventure. We planned to rehearse for nearly two hours, and to play the work straight through at 12 o'clock, by which time a large audience had assembled, consisting of several generations of St. Paul's School [the girls' school where Holst was director of music] girls, and all Holst's professional and other friends, including many music critics, and Sir Henry Wood [the leading British conductor of the time, famous now as the founder of the Proms concerts] himself.

The work instantly made a deep impression. There were enough members of the Board of the Royal Philharmonic Society present to invite me immediately to repeat most of it at one of their concerts in the following winter, and the score was engraved in a very short time by the enterprising firm of Goodwin and Tabb. My copy was inscribed by the composer as follows:
[reproduced in Holst's own handwriting]
This copy is the property of
Adrian Boult
who first caused the
Planets to shine in public and thereby earned the gratitude of
Gustav Holst
The composer himself conducted the first recording of the work at a time when recording techniques were still pretty crude. It was still in the days of 78s when the BBC Symphony Orchestra recorded a performance which I hope came very near the composer's intentions. It has been my privilege to repeat this experience with other orchestras, and now I hope that those who remember earlier performances will find that this later version, my fourth, with all the wonderful technical improvements which have now been introduced, still sounds faithful and authentic.

Boult was understandably closely associated with British music, for which he clearly had a natural empathy. But that natural empathy ran deeper and wider. I don't know how to say it any better than that he just had music inside him, busting to get out. And in what most everyone refers to as that remarkable "Indian summer" of his career, dating from EMI's resumption of an active recording program with the then 77-year-old conductor in 1966 and lasted roughly a dozen years, music lovers would eventually be reminded just how wide that musical empathy ran.

You can get a taste of Sir Adrian's Elgar (and yes, he was already "Sir Adrian," having been knighted in 1937) from this clip. In it he introduces the celebrated writer-broadcaster J. B. Priestley, who makes an eloquent appeal to the audience to support the survival of the London Philharmonic, at the time threatened with dissolution. Then Boult returns to conduct Elgar's jaunty Cockaigne Overture, of which, frustratingly, we hear not much more than the first minute and a half.

(The clip, by the way, is from a 1943 British film, Battle for Music, but this excerpt presumably dates from about 1939, since Priestley must have been anticipating Britain being drawn into a new world war, "There'll be dark days and dangerous nights ahead of us. Soon we may be fighting for our lives, and that's all the more reason why we should have all the courage and inspiration, the noble refreshment of the spirit that music can give us, and in short why we must save the London Philharmonic Orchestra." On the subject of war, I might mention that Sir Adrian begins his Planets liner note on the opening movement, "Mars, the Bringer of War," with the observation: "It is worth remembering that the composer wrote this in the summer of 1914 and so had no experience of what it describes.")

Brief as the Cockaigne excerpt is, we can see that Sir Adrian's conducting technique consisted of almost nothing that's visible beyond the extremely long baton. He insisted that the great conductors of his youth he modeled himself after essentially didn't move on the podium. Yet there is nothing static or neutral in the vivid orchestral playing he elicits.

We can observe the same thing, some 30 years later, in the most standard of standard repertory, as Sir Adrian conducts the opening of the first movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in 1968 with the great David Oistrakh as soloist (Sir Adrian was one of the great musical collaborators, with both instrumental soloists and singers):

(Among Sir Adrian's EMI stereo recordings, incidentally, is one of the great recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with the great Czech violinist Josef Suk.)

Not surprisingly, EMI recorded Boult in a ton of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. But as enthusiasm built for these products of his advanced maturity, EMI grew bolder in its repertory choices for him. Of course, in his half-century of professional conducting he had conducted most everything in the Western classical literature, old and new. But now he got to do such things as the complete Brahms symphonies (including the Alto Rhapsody with Janet Baker) and the two serenades, all the traditional Wagner orchestral excerpts, and perhaps most treasurably the complete Bach Brandenburg Concertos, all not only competitive with the best-ever recordings of this much-recorded music, but reflecting the unique wisdom of all those decades of living passionately with the music.

Again, I don't know how to describe the special quality I'm talking about except in terms of innate musicality. To me, there aren't many forces more powerful than the musical instincts of a talented, well-grounded musician, which I hold in something like awe.

A friend once asked me -- as a matter of fact, it was the very friend of the above-noted Boult Planets conversation -- what my favorite recording of Schubert's "Great C major" Symphony was. I thought for a bit, then mentioned that William Steinberg had made a wonderful recording during his custodianship of the Boston Symphony (in 1969-72, with the orchestra's management unable to agree on a successor to Erich Leinsdorf, he acceded to its request that he watch over it, while retaining his longtime music directorship of the Pittsburgh Symphony), and of course there's Josef Krips's stereo remake with the London Symphony. My friend got upset. Apparently I was supposed to nominate one of the Great Conductors. Toscanini or Furtwängler would have been acceptable answers. But Steinberg? Krips?

What can I say? It's not that I don't have worlds of admiration for Toscanini and Furtwängler. But these are the conductors I'm more likely to gravitate to. (Sir Adrian, by the way, made an outstandingly beautiful recording of the Schubert symphony.)


I don't find any recent trace of "my" Boult Planets, the c 1967 New Philharmonia version, except via download from Amazon UK. Shockingly, although there have been a couple of EMI editions, like this one, of the 1977-79 LPO version paired with Sir Adrian's London Symphony recording of Elgar's Enigma Variations, I don't find any indication that 1978-79 Planets is available now in any form except as one of Arkiv Music's authorized (but premium-priced) "custom" reproductions, of the Planets-only EMI Studio edition.

To my chagrin, I can't find any sign of recent availability of Boult's Brandenburgs, and while the EMI Brahms symphonies have been on CD in various couplings, again I don't see any recent listings. However, the two serenades, the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures, the Haydn Variations, and the Alto Rhapsody with Baker (which, no doubt on the strength of Baker's name, seems to have been reissued in 20 or 30 different couplings) are all packed into a generous EMI "twofer" set.

On a happier note, the beautiful Boult Wagner orchestral excerpts seem readily available. If you can find the three separate EMI Studio CDs at reasonable prices, grab them. However, leaving very little out, EMI was able to squeeze the rest into a moderately priced two-CD setthat should be self-recommending.

Toscanini note: The Philadelphia recordings made listenable

Side note: Having mentioned Toscanini in connection with the Schubert "Great C major" Symphony, I want to make sure you know -- as I didn't until recently -- about the miraculous 2007 restoration wrought by the Sony BMG Classics technical people on the previously barely listenable recordings the maestro made in 1941-42 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Something terrible apparently happened to the 78 masters, and with the 1942 wartime U.S. recording ban, it not only wasn't possible to continue the Toscanini/Philadelphia series, it was impossible to remake the presumed hopeless material. Previous releases have left no doubt that these are specially lovely performances, with orchestral textures and subtleties contrasting particularly with Toscanini's NBC Symphony recordings, but the technical defects made it almost impossible to listen to them.

I don't know how the miracle was accomplished, but in this latest issue, where all the material fits on three CDs, the recordings sound just fine for their time. In addition to the most beautiful of the Toscanini recordings of the Schubert symphony, there's a similarly lyrical Tchaikovsky Pathétique plus shorter works by Debussy (La Mer), Richard Strauss (Death and Transfiguration), Respighi (Feste romane), Mendelssohn (Midsummer Night's Dream excerpts), and Berlioz' "Queen Mab Scherzo" from Roméo et Juliette. If you've tried to listen to this material, you won't believe the difference.


I wish we could talk a little more about these, but you don't really want to go into it now, do you? I didn't think so. And I don't know when we'll be able to get back to them, so let's just take note of two more super-economical big boxes, both from Deutsche Grammophon, covering repertory we've talked about recently. Of course there are only rudimnetary notes and no printed texts for the vocal works, but again, look at the prices.

Brahms, as I noted in our three-part quick look (part one, part two, and part three), set himself almost impossibly high standards, and two of his favorite tricks were abandoning or outright destroying works at any stage of compositiong which didn't meet his standards. Partly for this reason, and partly because of the historical trend to writing fewer but more elaborately considered works (already evident in Beethoven's output, and both reflected in and advanced by Brahms), DG has been able to offer the complete works on 46 CDs -- not necessarily all that well filled. (For example, the two piano concertos, both about 50 minutes, occupy CDs by themselves.)

It should go without saying that the quality of the performances varies, but these are all A-list performers from the DG roster (you can find a breakdown of the contents and performers here), and the overall level is blessedly high. At the moment, Amazon is still offeringthis set at an astonishing $62.97 -- plus tax, of course, but with free shipping.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about Verdi's ability to look unflinchingly at the problem of evil. DG has produced a set that unquestionably has a split personality but is still worthwhile: the 21-disc "Verdi: Great Operas from La Scala/Various." (You can find a list of the cast principals for all the performances here.)

One personality is the five Verdi operas DG recorded at La Scala between 1960 and 1964: Rigoletto conducted by Rafael Kubelik, Il Trovatore by Tullio Serafin, La Traviata by Antonino Votto, Un Ballo in maschera by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, and Don Carlos by Gabriele Santini (the first recording of a five-act version) -- by no means uniform in approach, but in general building performances through a grounded understanding of the shape of an Italianate musical phrase.

Then there are recordings from the later series conducted by Claudio Abbado, made between 1986 and 1991: Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra, Aida, and the Requiem. (Curiously, in the booklet the Traviata with Renata Scotto, Gianni Poggi, and Ettore Bastianini -- from 1962, I believe -- is listed among the Abbado peformances and dated "5/1976," making one wonder if a different performance had at some point been intended, though I can't think what. A previously unreleased recording, perhaps? If so, it remains unreleased. Of course, it could just be a screw-up.) The Abbado-conducted performances have their attractions. They're very pretty in a lot of ways, but unfortunately mostly in the same several ways -- for example, a soft, lyrical mode that sounds like a lullaby and is misapplied to most of the music that gets this treatment. And while Abbado seems to have had some effect on his singers, he doesn't seem to have provided much help to any of them in getting inside their roles. For example, baritone Piero Cappuccilli does some prettier-than-usual soft singing, but again it's that lullabylike mode that hardly ever has anything to do with what's going on.

I might mention that there is an Abbado Verdi Requiem that I like quite a lot: a 1982 Edinburgh Festival video performance that seems to me much more alert to musical and dramatic content, orchestrally, chorally, and in the work of the vocal soloists.


The updated list is here.

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At 12:10 PM, Blogger cft said...

"Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age" has always been my favorite movement of The Planets, & I've read that it was also Holst's favorite. "Neptune" is beautiful & enchanting, to be sure.

At 1:26 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Sir Adrian's liner note on "Saturn" begins: "Miss Holst says her father was fond of this movement. He might well be -- nowhere is music of greater penetration to be found."

So I don't think you'd get any quarrel from either of the Holsts or Sir Adrian.


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