What a pleasant surprise! Live recordings can be tricky, and Adrian Boult was always reliable if not generally essential in this kind of standard repertoire, but these performances were well worth recovering. ICA Classics has impressed me not only for the diversity of repertoire and artists, but for the overall quality of the releases in question. As the notes point out, both of the concerts from which these performances originate were ignored by the local British press, and in retrospect, that was a mistake.
Boult may have been hit or miss in Brahms throughout his career, but no one can deny his EMI recordings have their admirers. This BBC performance is something special, though; a swift and urgent reading that is at odds with Boult's generally relaxed reputation. The sound isn't great, and climaxes sound congested, but the vision and commitment rushes at you like a wave. Some sloppy brass and screechy strings notwithstanding, this is a unique and often exciting look at this great symphony. Check out the low strings supporting the winds at the start of the andante, or the wholly convincing flow of the movement as a whole. Sure, the final movements sound a little tired and carry a touch less weight, but the work as a whole is idiomatic and full of character as one could wish. More to the point, it shows Boult at his best in Brahms, which is very good indeed.
The Mendelssohn is a touch less convincing; every movement takes too long to take wing. The sound is even less appealing, although the playing is actually better in places in 1972 than 1974. The first movement does not start well, seeming both sluggish and smoothed over, but snaps into form about halfway through to sound pretty terrific. The introduction to the second movement andante doesn't sound quite together or in tune, but when the winds interweave with the high strings a few moments later, Boult shows his affection for the score and more importantly, the ability to convey it. Winds are very good. After a good yet somewhat faceless third movement, the presto is actually something worth cheering about. Pushing relentlessly forward and aided by great playing, Boult comes out a winner at the finish line. Better sound probably would have greatly improved my overall impressions; in both performances Boult sheds his rather gentlemanly image and shows flashes of real intensity allied to years of musical intelligence. Fans of the conductor will want this, warts and all. I'm glad I have it.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman