Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Vaughan Williams, EMI, and Sir Adrian Boult

EMI (50999 0) 87484 2 (5-disc box set) (2012)
Vaughan Williams: The Nine Symphonies
Sir Adrian Boult/New Philharmonia/London Philharmonic et al. 

With the possible exceptions of Sir John Barbirolli's justly lauded 1962 reading of the Symphony #5, or the late Sir Richard Hickox' riveting rendition of the 4th on Chandos, there are probably no more authentic or authoritative stereo performances of Vaughan Williams' symphonies than those recorded by Sir Adrian Boult for EMI with the London Philharmonic and New Philharmonia orchestras between 1967 and 1971. (Boult’s mono recordings, made for Decca between 1952 and 1958 under the supervision of the composer, are an extraordinary testament and well worth the serious collector’s attention.)

It's a great shame that neither Barbirolli nor Hickox got around to recording a complete RVW symphonic cycle during their busy lifetimes, in which case this present set might have had some genuine competition. The well-known and often-re-issued cycles by Vernon Handley (EMI), Bryden Thomson (Chandos), Bernard Haitink (EMI), Sir Andrew Davis (TelDec), Andre Previn, and Leonard Slatkin (both for RCA) are all competent, offering some interesting insights into the music, but none of them rise to the rarefied heights so decisively commanded by Boult, especially when one considers the improved sound in this new transfer. I was particularly disappointed by the superannuated sonics on EMI's recent 30-disc Vaughan Williams Collector's Edition, featuring—somewhat mystifyingly—yet another issue of the Handley cycle, a disappointment which greatly influenced my decision to purchase this packaging of the Boult performances. In retrospect, I'm glad I did.

Boult's cycle has never been out of circulation since it first appeared. I remember collecting some of these performances on Angel (EMI-USA) LPs back in the mid-70s; the sound being fairly muffled and poorly defined, due in part to the sub-par pressings so common back then. I found better pressings and sound on His Master's Voice (EMI-UK) import LPs a decade later, and was able to more fully appreciate the scope and power of these interpretations. First in 1986, and again in 1991, EMI re-issued the cycle on a series of separate CDs as well as no fewer than three subsequent complete box sets (2000, 2012 and 2013—no doubt Warner Classics will continue this tradition as well). As originally issued, those re-masterings fell somewhat short of the mark in my opinion, failing to take full advantage of the broader dynamic levels afforded by the new digital technology. In this regard, the first CD issues in no way superseded the 80s-vintage HMV LPs.

While this new set from 2012 relies on the same re-masterings from the late 80s, the quality of the transfers is greatly improved. The sound that was excellent in 1986 is now nothing short of magnificent; wide-open, richly detailed, full and clear with nothing coming between the music and the listener. And this truly is great music, from a great interpreter who was as close to the musical mind of the composer as anyone before or since. Boult's reading of the choral Sea Symphony (#1) is taut, stirring and vividly paced; his London Symphony (#2) is a revelation of detail, and probably the finest interpretation of that most famous example of English impressionism ever to be recorded in stereo (though Barbirolli’s 1957 recording is exceptional, and his 1940 mono recording remains the ultimate benchmark for this work); the gentle Pastorale (#3), the noble, stirring 5th; the dark, acerbic 4th and 6th; the wry and rollicking 8th, the autumnal 9th, and the extended cinematic tone-poem of the Sinfonia Antarctica (#7) are all brought to glorious life on these recordings; sheer, unalloyed pleasure. (This set includes only the symphonies with no additional filler material.)

Recommended without reservation.




EMI (HMV) SLS-780 (2-LP set) (1968)
EMI (Angel) SB-3739 (2-LP set)
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Symphony #1)
The Wasps
Boult/London Philharmonic et al.

EMI (HMV (Greensleeve)) ESD 7104 (1981 re-issue)
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Symphony #1)
Boult/ London Philharmonic et al.

EMI (HMV) ASD 2740 (1971)
EMI (Angel) S-36838
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Symphony #2)
Boult/London Philharmonic et al.

EMI (HMV) ED 29 0331 1 (1982 re-issue)
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Symphony #2)
Boult/London Philharmonic

EMI (HMV) ASD 2393 (1968)
EMI (Angel) S-36532
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #3
In the Fen Country
Boult/Armstrong/New Philharmoni

EMI (HMV) ASD 2538 (1970)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #3
Symphony #5
Boult/Armstrong/New Philharmonia (#3)/London Philharmonic (#5)

EMI (HMV) ASD 2375 (1968)
EMI (Angel) S-36537 (1971)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #4
Norfolk Rhapsody #1
Boult/New Philharmonia

EMI (HMV) ED 29 0417 (1985 re-issue)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #4
Norfolk Rhapsody #1
Boult/New Philharmonia 

EMI (HMV) ASD 2393 (1968)
EMI (Angel) S-36696
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #5
Boult/London Philharmonic

EMI (HMV) ASD 2538 (1970)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #5
Serenade to Music
Boult/London Philharmonic et al.

EMI (HMV) ASD 2329 (1967)
EMI (Angel) S-36469
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #6
The Lark Ascending
Boult/New Philharmonia et al.

EMI (HMV) ASD 2631 (1970)
EMI (Angel) S-36763
Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia Antarctica (Symphony #7)
Boult/Burrows/London Philharmonic

EMI (HMV) ASD 2469 (1969)
EMI (Angel) S-36625
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #8
Piano Concerto
Boult/London Philharmonic 

EMI (HMV) ASD 2375 (1968)
EMI (Angel) S-36742
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #9
Fantasia on the Old 104th
Boult/London Philharmonic 


10. (q.v. 1.)
EMI 64016 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Symphony #1)
Boult/Armstrong/Carol-Case/London Philharmonic 

11. (q.v. 2.)
EMI 47213 (1986)
EMI 64017 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Symphony #2)
Boult/London Philharmonic 

12. (q.v. 3., 5.)
EMI 47214 (1986)
EMI 64018 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #3 ‘Pastorale’
Symphony #5
Boult/Armstrong/New Philharmonia (#3)/London Philharmonic (#5) 

13. (q.v. 4., 6.)
EMI 47215 (1986)
EMI 64019 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #4
Symphony #6
Boult/New Philharmonia 

14. (q.v. 7.)
EMI 47216 (1989)
EMI 64020 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia Antarctica (Symphony #7)
Boult/Burrows/London Philharmonic 

15. (q.v. 8., 9.)
EMI 47217 (1986)
EMI 64021 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #8
Symphony #9
Boult/London Philharmonic 

EMI 73924 (8-disc box set) (2000)
Vaughan Williams: Symphonies & Other Orchestral Works
Boult/New Philharmonia/London Philharmonic et al.

EMI 35672 (13-disc box set) (2013)
Sir Adrian Boult: Vaughan Williams; The Complete EMI Recordings
Boult/New Philharmonia/London Philharmonic et al. 

Decca 000213202 (5-disc box set) (2004)
British Music Collection: Vaughan Williams
(mono recordings, 1952-1958)
Boult/London Philharmonic et al.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Claudio Abbado's Brucknerian Farewell

Deutsche Gramophone 479 3441 (2014)
Bruckner: Symphony #9
Claudio Abbado/Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Recorded at the Lucerne Festival on August 26, 2013, this is a fine, serviceable performance of Bruckner's sprawling unfinished valedictory symphonic essay, albeit, disappointingly, not among the very greatest.

Claudio Abbado, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 80, brought a workmanlike attentiveness to all his recordings, seeming always most confident and comfortable in the role of orchestral accompanist, a role he filled very well indeed, whether leading opera performances or collaborating with soloists. Those concerto recordings may eventually be considered the true essence of his voluminous legacy. One recalls, for example, the outstanding 1967 readings of the Prokofiev Third and the Ravel G-major with the young Martha Argerich (DG (Originals) 447-438 (1996 re-issue)). But the conductor also left behind some extraordinary symphonic recordings which have rightly been hailed as classics; a 1966 reading of Beethoven's Symphony #7 for Decca (Eloquence 2069 402 (2014 re-issue)), and an excellent Tchaikovsky survey for CBS (Sony 88697836722 (2011 compilation)); a now-near-legendary album of music by Alban Berg (DG (Originals) 449-714-2 (re-issue 1997)), a truly glorious 1977 rendition of Mahler's Symphony #2 "Resurrection" with Marilyn Horn, Carol Neblett, and the Chicago Symphony (DG (Galleria) 427-262-2), and a delightful disc of Schubert's Rosamunde incidental music D 797 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (DG 431-655-2 (1991)).

The sound on this super-audio disc is excellent, as one would surely expect, though to my ears there is a certain ambient dryness, which the work's broad dynamic contrasts only tend to  accentuate; the bass seems overly "rumbly" in spots, and there is what I would describe as a mildly claustrophobic, compressed quality in the loud tutti passages. (I should note that my benchmark recording of this work, both for performance and sound, is the iconic, unsurpassed 1959 reading by the 83-year-old Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, a performance that affects and moves on all levels of perception, intellect, and emotion.)

Where Bruckner was concerned, Abbado was, alas, no Bruno Walter. Especially in the opening movement of this Ninth, Abbado overemphasizes the superficial episodic aspects of the music at the expense of sustained dramatic tension and overall coherency of the long line. Though vast in scale, Bruckner's symphonies are not structurally convoluted. And yet, to be effective, a conductor must recognize and emphasize the deep, internal associations within the score. Recurring themes are one thing; it is quite easy for listeners to mentally coordinate Bruckner's big, obvious recapitulations. Sructure and the tension that holds it together are another matter, requiring, above all, concentration, subtlety,and profound understanding.

Indeed, the greatest Bruckner performances come from conductors who comprehend the way these works operate in both temporal and spatial contexts, as if perceiving them from above and outside the constricting dimensions of time and space. In practical terms, this means seeing the score as more than a mere series of vertical chord progressions, but, in fact, an extended unified horizontal statement, in which every constituent part relates to the whole. Yes, these compositions are episodic, but never disorientingly "herky-jerky" or excessively "stop-and-go". If the tempi are managed properly, never too fast, broadening out as the orchestral texture expands like the breathing of a titanic organism, the episodes should flow naturally, unobtrusively, one into the next, and the work will end leaving listeners sighing for still more. Beautifully detailed as it is, Abbado's performance left me feeling mostly indifferent, and this impression remained unchanged after several subsequent hearings.

Still, notwithstanding its shortcomings, the last new entry in this important conductor's discography instantly assumes the status of a testament, an historical document, and a memento of no small sentimental value.  In this regard one might place it, comfortably, alongside Pierre Boulez great 1996 live recording of the Eighth, recorded on the centennial of the composer's death in St. Florian's Cathedral itself (DG 459-678-2 (2000)), though I doubt it will be something I would care to revisit quite as ofen.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Favorite-Record Profile #1: Dowland Consort Music

LP: Hyperion A66010 (1981)
CD: Hyperion CDA66010 (1981)
Dowland: Consort Music
Extemporé String Ensemble 

What makes any given record a favorite? After forty years of collecting, and well over 2,000 acquisitions (approximately 1,000 LPs (all sold or given away by 1991), and currently just over 1,200 CD albums collected since 1986) I have a few thoughts on the matter. A great performance goes without saying. Good sound is important, too, though occasionally—not often—a superior performance may end up transcending less than stellar sonics. There are many records that I like well enough, recognizing all manner of admirable qualities in performance, sound engineering and production. But for a record to become a favorite, call it love at first hearing; the record needs to zero in on that sweet nexus of physical and intellectual pleasure, engaging the visceral and the cerebral with near-equal intensity. Beyond that magical first encounter, the record must continue to claim attention, entertain consistently, revealing with each subsequent hearing something seemingly new and undeniably interesting.

Elsewhere on this site, visitors will find a page entitled Favorite Records. I have been gradually compiling this list in my leisure hours based on the catalog of my LP collection made back in the late 1980s, and a continually-updated master list of my current CD holdings. When finished, the list will probably top out at about 250 titles.  In addition, I will be posting short “profiles” of a few selected favorites from time to time, choosing the subject at random as the mood strikes me. Here is the first profile.

What happens when impeccable classical technique, a thoughtful approach to period performance practice, and dazzling improvisatory skill all come together? Something akin to Jacobean jazz, or, at least, as close and authentic an approximation to the early-Seventeenth-century practice of extemporizing as one is ever likely to hear.  What makes this album such an unalloyed delight is that the members of the Extemporé String Ensemble actually seem to be enjoying themselves, communicating that sense of delectation and fun, insouciance and pure musical verve that is not only rare in recordings of early music, but virtually unique. Of course, many superb ensembles have tackled this repertory over the decades; Fretworks, The Rose Consort, and, perhaps most notably, Anthony Rooley’s Consort of Musicke, but more often than not these performances have been dry, tepid affairs, flawless in terms of execution to be sure, but diffident and over-cautious where actual interpretation is concerned. By contrast, the Extemporé players seem fearless, more than willing to take some risks, and daring to offer an opinion about the music they so obviously love, and execute with such charming panache.

Compare, for instance, the Extemporé ensemble’s 1981 rendition of Dowland’s iconic Lacrymae Pavan for Hyperion with Rooley’s well-known recording from a few years earlier (L’Oiseau-Lyre DSLO 533 (1977)), or, more tellingly, compare the additional material included on each album. Fine as they are, Rooley’s players never seem to vary the mood, or the tempo, regardless of whether they essay a slow, stately pavan or some essentially faster, lighter-toned piece; it’s as if the music were being played in a vacuum devoid of any infecting hint of "unauthentic" practice, and thus, devoid of life itself. By contrast, the Extemporé performance is crackling, sharp, vibrant, and utterly unforgettable.

Hyperion's recorded sound was excellent for an early digital effort, if sometimes a bit raucous and "wide open" in the upper and lower extremes, though this rough-hewn quality seems perfectly in sync with the spirit of the performances. This recording was also available for a time on a Musical Heritage Society LP (MHS 4808 (1983)). I am not sure if it was ever re-issued on Helios (Hyperion’s budget imprint), though if not, it ought to be. Good used copies of the CD and vinyl versions are still fairly easy to locate, and are well worth owning.