Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Sir Edward Elgar Introduction and Allegro – Sir Adrian Boult 1937 Recording

Sir Adrian Boult
My introduction to the music of Sir Edward Elgar was some 43 years ago when I was still at school. In those days the music department record library consisted of a good selection of vinyl 33rpm and old 78rpm records. Amongst the latter, was the 1937 recording of an Introduction and Allegro for Strings played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This two-record set also included the haunting Sospiri. I remember somehow getting those fragile records home on the school bus without breaking them. Fortunately, my father’s stereogram still had the 78rpm stylus fitted, so I was able to listen to them as soon as I got home. A recording was made on a cassette tape (which I still possess) simply by placing the microphone in front of the speakers and hoping my mother did not come into the sitting room to announce that tea was ready.

In the October 1934 edition of The Gramophone magazine H.E.J. Collins had declared a wish list of up-to-date recordings that he felt ‘are ardently desired by many gramophiles’. He listed five or six works with accompanying artists. This included Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony by Koussevitzky and the Boston Orchestra, Schubert’s 7th Symphony by Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings with Boult and the BBC Orchestra.  His letter also refers to the music of Bax and Moeran, but that is perhaps for another post.
Three years later HMV released the wished-for recording of Elgar on DB3198-9. It had been recorded on 24 March 1937 at the EMI Studio 1 at Abbey Road.
The most extensive review of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro was printed in the August 1937 edition of the Musical Times:-

Full marks to Adrian Boult and the strings of the B.B.C. orchestra for their performance of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro (DB 3198-99). This, to my mind, is better than Toscanini's performance with the same players on May 28, [Queen’s Hall, London] brilliant as that undoubtedly was, and well as it deserved its chorus of praise. What startled everybody on that occasion was, I think, the virtuosity of the string-playing and the daring leadership that asked everything of the players and got it. Under Toscanini we were given an unsurpassed realization of Elgar's string-writing. Yet it was an incomplete interpretation of Elgar's music, for it passed over those implications that are only to be perceived by one who has had a life-long intimacy with Elgar's special code. This intimacy does not proceed from an eclectic appreciation, such as Toscanini's, that fastens upon a few works such as the Enigma Variations and the Introduction and Allegro for what they possess of everyday merit. Its ground is an appreciation that is sympathetic to Elgar as a whole and catches the drift of all his music, both of the kind that breaks down European barriers and of the kind that stays within its own frontiers. It is thus that Adrian Boult appreciates Elgar. He sees in the Introduction and Allegro, not only what the writing says, but all the modifications and glosses put upon it by the Elgarian code. To play the music as the composer wrote it will not serve here, although with Elgar's almost garrulous directions the process gives the conductor plenty to attend to... …One of the few definite points of comparison between Toscanini and Boult is the tempo primo at the beginning of the fugue. Possibly Toscanini's headlong tempo was strictly primo by the clock. But Boult's more measured beat gives a clearer definition to the contrapuntal lines and their separate incidents. Moreover, it leads to a more distinct pui animato at the twenty-second bar of the fugue…Where memory is the only guide it is difficult to be specific; but it can be affirmed that in total effect Boult's interpretation is Elgarian in a way that Toscanini's just failed to be. The recorded performance sounds as if it had been thoroughly rehearsed, the players giving the conductor all the quick response that he asks of them… 
A review in the Yorkshire Evening Post (Friday 2 July 1937) suggests that the Introduction and Allegro holds ‘an assured place as one of the finest compositions ever written for string orchestra…and has the emotional uplift which Elgar at his greatest can inspire. He believes that this music ‘truly are strains that might create a soul under the ribs of death.’ (John Milton, Comus). Commenting on the ‘new’ records he rather oddly states that ‘In the wide field which he must cover, Sir Adrian does not always please.’  However, with the Elgar ‘in his aspiring mood the BBC music director can be deeply impressive, and so he is here.’ He concludes his review with praise for Sospiri and states that ‘these are two deeply satisfying records.’  The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Inteligencer (Thursday 15 July 1937) also picked up on this new record release: ‘We may rely on Sir Adrian Boult to give a better account of Elgar than any foreign conductor, however gifted. Here is Elgar at his ripest, moving happily in a large design and showing at every turn his deep love and understanding of strings. The playing is almost impeccable and the fluctuating tempi are felt to be part of this conception.’

The July 1937 copy of The Gramophone carried an extensive review, a comparison with a recent performance by Toscanini and an ‘analysis’ of this new record. The reviewer immediately suggested that Boult used too much ‘rubato in this recording (stolen time where the conductor gives some of the time value of longer notes to shorter ones without changing the rhythm).  However, he considers that the music speaks ‘with some of the deepest feeling and the finest architectural sense.’
He suggests that the performance is ‘good, but not more.’  He is concerned that the recording conditions may have had a negative impact on this music.’ The playing was ‘honest’ but not exciting’.  He thought that the climaxes were understated.  On the positive side, Boult ‘feels the Englishness of it all, and that (without entering into the impassioned debate about this business of Englishness and foreignness) does matter.’

There are currently some sixty recordings of Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for string listed in the Arkiv Catalogue. However, from a personal point of view it is a classic example of when the first performance of a work which one hears is the ‘lifetime’ touchstone. Since those far off school-days I have heard many versions of the Introduction and Allegro including performances by Colin Davis, Mark Elder and Richard Hickox. But for me my favourite is still the old 1937 Boult recording. Fortunately it is available on download and on CD.

Brief Discography:
Sir Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1937 recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings is currently available on:-
CD EI CDM 763 097-2 (1986)
CD VAI Audio VAIA 1067-2 (1

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