DVD Review- ICA Classics Boult conducts Vaughan Williams

This is the second in my series looking at recent releases of historic performances from great conductors of the past. For an introduction and a bit of explanation about why I’m writing about DVDs, please see my review of Klaus Tennstedt’s recording of Mahler 5 here.

With each DVD, I’m going to try to answer four questions for the benefit of students of the art of conducting and music fans:

1- Does it offer a window into what made the featured conductor an important figure? Does it add anything new to our understanding of the musicians involved or the history of the art?
2- What can a student of the art form learn from studying it?
3- How good is it?
4- Is this something I’d recommend to students of conducting and/or general classical music fans?

Anyway, I’m a little ambivalent about breaking my “no reviews” rule- these will be very much from the perspective of a professional conductor, with a particular focus on DVDs of some historical importance and documents of the craft of conducting.

Next up, the new recording of Vaughan Williams’ Eighth Symphony and “Job- A Masque for Dancing” featuring Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic



1-    Does it offer a window into what made the featured conductor an important figure? Does it add anything new to our understanding of the musicians involved or the history of the art?

Adrian Boult ranked as number 13 on my all-time Top 20 Conductors list last spring- he was one of the most important figures in the history of British musical life. He was an exceptionally important interpreter of Vaghan Williams and Elgar (Elgar famously said he knew the future of his music was secure as along as Adrian Boult was conducting it). He founded the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and made it the best orchestra in the country, and when he was forced to retire from the BBC, he moved to the LPO and made it the best orchestra in the country.

However, Boult was more than an expert interpreter of English music.  Of the great British conductors of his generation, often seemed the most at home in “core” German repertoire, excelling in Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven and even Mahler.

In spite of his huge place in music history, Boult has not previously been well-represented on DVD. There was one DVD available previously with Boult accompanying Milstein. Sadly, the film didn’t catch either of these giants at their best. This new ICA Classics DVD then marks modern music fans’ first chance to see Boult conducting symphonic repertoire, in this case repertoire in which he was widely acknowledged as a definitive interpreter.

Don’t be put off by Adrian Boult’s rather patrician and Edwardian presence- he may look like a caricature of a repressed British military officer, but the orchestra plays like they were being conducted by a sweat and blood drenched viking.


2-     What can a student of the art form learn from studying it?

As a conductor, Adrian Boult was the living embodiment of a very specific orthodoxy. Boult believed conductors should be heard through the orchestra, but shouldn’t distract the eye. Boult was the least demonstrative of conductors.  He is about as far from the Carlos Kleiber virtuoso school of whiz-bang baton panache as you can get. He was extraordinarily physically centered- he was tall, and, unlike many tall conductors (including me) he has flawless posture, even at this late point in his career (this concert was filmed in the 1970’s, when Boult was well over 80 years old). With a bit of historical remove, we can now see that one need not subscribe to Boult’s orthodoxy to learn a great deal from  his work. I don’t think my conducting and his look much alike beyond the fact that we’re both tall and bald. That said, I’m fascinated by the focused fluidity of his technique- the stick (enormous as it is) moves with uncannily supple specificity- none of his pupils (Colin Davis, Richard Hickox or Tod Handley included) had the same casual virtuosity and ability to convey intensity without tension. If anyone, he reminds me a little, in spite of their different repertoires, of Oliver Knussen, who has a similar ability to make the baton float and dart.

Yes, modern conductors might be a bit amused at the truly epic length of his baton (it could pass for a tree), but his technique is absolutely immaculate. Everything is completely clear and effortless. Although he does no grandstanding of any kind, he is engaged with the music- his face is calmly expressive and his hands are fluently attuned to every musical event in the score (in fact, he shows 90% of what’s in the score with the stick alone).  This is musicianship and technical achievement on the highest level.

3-    How good is it?

The LPO is on fantastic form throughout- they play with a beautiful sound, cohesive ensemble and flawless balance (balance was a hallmark of Boult’s work throughout the years). Between the Tennstedt Mahler 5 and this, ICA’s series has to be a serious boon for the LPO’s historical standing.  Ensemble is also effortlessly tight. The brass play with huge power when required, but never overwhelm the strings or sound like they’ve maxed out. The few nervous moments in the violin solos are very minor and a good reminder of the pressure and sense occasion that must have been felt on the evening. In any case, the leader quickly settles in, and the long solo in Job is very moving.

The repertoire is an obvious choice- Boult’s audio recordings of the Vaughan Williams symphonies have long been considered to be the standard by which all others are judged. The 8th Symphony is not nearly as often played as any of the first 6 he wrote, but it’s an effective piece, not as filmic as the 7th nor as weird as the 9th.“Job” may even be a stronger piece- it has certainly tended to be played more often than the 8th in spite of the awkward title. Boult conducts both works like he wrote them himself-  every tempo change works, and when Vaughan Williams gives him the chance to build a dramatic arc, he does so with incredible simplicity but power. The end of Scene VI of Job (Let then the day perish wherein I was born) is masterfully handled, and when, just before the climactic tamtam entrance, Boult gives the orchestra a gently ferocious look of “this had better be REALLY loud,” the effect is fantastic. As good as that is, the magisterial build at the end of the next number is even more moving- Boult conducts with almost maddening restraint in music of ridiculous opulence, but knows exactly when to let go and push the orchestra that little bit more.

The video and audio quality are both excellent- the picture is fresh enough that one wonders whether it was originally captured on film rather than videotape. The colors certainly look far more vibrant and real than one would expect from early 1970’s video.

4-     Is this something I’d recommend to students of conducting and/or general classical music fans?

Yes- the conducting world needs Boult more than ever these days. With so many orchestras looking for a conductor who can showboat his or her way to bigger ticket sales, it’s wonderful to see a master craftsman at work. Everything he does is for the benefit of music and musicians and nothing is done to call attention to himself. Although he seemed determined to avoid extraneous display, he does have a strange charisma that seems to come just from the sheer mastery with which he goes about his business. He’s fascinating to watch, especially how he’s able to get so much power from the orchestra with such intensity but with no tension. If you like Vaughan Williams, or just want to get to know this repertoire better, it’s a great place to start.

I have only one complaint- the filmed performance of Job is peppered with long, long, long cutaways to  static shots of William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (published 1826). The effect is extremely irritating- the director clearly didn’t trust the performance to be interesting on its own merits, a common and completely unnecessary failing of many films of orchestral performances (the Viennese New Year’s concerts are often peppered with incredibly annoying cutaways to the lobby of the Musikverein or the streets of Vienna, and the Adagietto of Bernard Haitkink’s Christmas Matinee performance of Mahler 5 with the Concertgebouw cuts to arial shots of Amsterdam for most of the movement- directors who do this should be beaten!). Given the historic importance of the occasion- a chance to film the greatest Vaughan Williams interpreter of all-time in nearly ideal conditions- it’s tragic that nobody managed to stop this travesty at the time of broadcast. Several minutes of scarce footage of one of the great conductors seems now to be lost forever (it’s a pity the missing concert footage couldn’t be reinstated in the DVD mastering and restoration process. I also had to shake my head in disbelief when I read in the notes that the same concert had included a performance of Vaughan Williams greatest song-cycle “On Wenlock Edge” which the BBC, in their wisdom, decided to turn the cameras off for).

However, much as the repeated cut-aways made me want to feed the disc to my dog, the impact of the interruptions becomes less irritating on repeated viewings (once you know they will end, they are more tolerable) and the overall DVD is so good and so important that I hesitate to even mention this one flaw.

The liner notes by Colin Anderson strike an ideal balance between offering historical context about Boult’s career and a personal window into his relationship with the musicians of the LPO. Anderson ends his note with a quote from the LPO’s principal cellist in those days, Alexander Cameron, who says of Sir Adrian: “He was a wonderful conductor of British music.”

I agree, but I don’t think the qualifier “British music” is needed. Hopefully, ICA can unearth some footage of Boult conducting Brahms to compliment this wonderful new issue.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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