One of my treasured recordings from early childhood was a certain “Messiah.” I had saved up my allowance and mail-ordered it from somewhere exotic, like Hackensack. The conductor was Adrian Boult. I didn’t know a thing about him, and my only exposure to the work had been hearing my stepmother, a professional quality soprano, sing the solos in the local church at Christmas and Easter. I remember how regal the overture sounded as conducted by the bushy-mustached Brit.
As time went on, and I began studying music more in depth, then attending a renowned choral conservatory, etc., the time it took to perform a complete Messiah began shrinking, dramatically! The Overture on my beloved recording, made in 1954, took 4 minutes and 45 seconds. The Overture on the ground-breaking Christopher Hogwood recording (1980) took 2:51, nearly two minutes faster, or almost half the length! What was going on?
Well, of course, since the mid-1950s or so, the HIP movement began striding into our performing lives. HIP stands for “Historically Informed Performance,” and is preferred to the term “authentic,” which is SO filled with ambiguity, if not impossibility. Not that I’m a meter maid or anything, but another section from that Messiah, the alto aria “He Was Despised,” takes 12:48 on Boult, and 10:09 on Hogwood, a difference of nearly one-third.
I like the early-instruments and practices sounds, mainly because they “expand” the ear, even when transferred to “non”early instruments and venues. But I am unwilling to give up any performance that is full of conviction and consistency. You could say I’m not recommending HIP replacement, but trying to remain HIP to all approaches.
Sir Adrian Boult (knighted in 1937), was born in 1889, and died in 1983. He gave the world premiere of Holst’s evergreen orchestra sonic spectacular “The Planets.” Talk about historically informed. He also worked tirelessly on behalf of many contemporary British composers, and gave the British premiere of Berg’s “Wozzeck” in 1934. Did you know that Delius, Elgar, and Holst all died in 1934?
Boult’s conducting style was sober, non-showy. He despised conductors that dramatized points with “their anatomy” as he called it. He believed in a well-controlled stick technique and the music itself. Holst called him “an angel with brains.”
In 1932, he encored the entire Viola Concerto by William Walton during a concert, after audience reception was insufficiently enthusiastic. Perhaps this was the uncompromising stance that caused one of his nieces to pray: “Please, Jesus, make Mr. Boult ill for Christmas, so that we may have some jolly music.”
Whatever your present-day stand on his spacious Messiah tempi, let’s give the last word to no less than Pablo Casals, whose appearance in the Elgar Cello Concerto, conducted by Sir Adrian, prompted the following quote: “An orchestra must be an institution of art, of daylight, of inspiration, and not a machine for concert making: the day this true point of view is comprehended is the day music will take its true place.”
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs