Reviews

GHCD 2393 – Sir Malcolm Sargent – An evening at the Proms

Joan Hammond (soprano) (sung in English), Shura Cherkassky (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent (conductor)

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MusicWeb International – December 2012

It is hard now to recall the extent of the affection and respect with which many music-lovers, especially those who attended the Proms, regarded Sir Malcolm Sargent in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember making a slightly disrespectful remark about his conducting to an ardent Prommer and being treated thereafter with suspicion. Nowadays his name is more likely to bring to mind the cancer charity founded in his memory, and even that has been reduced to just part of the acronym CLIC Sargent. Nonetheless as this disc reminds us, he was a conductor with solid virtues even if they may not have extended as far as some may have judged at the time. Even if from what was said at the time he was no favourite with orchestral players.
Although the disc begins with 24 seconds of applause – no date or place of recording given – it is not of a live concert. It is nonetheless representative of the kind of music that might have appeared at the Proms, and in particular at the last night, during the years in which he presided. It is interesting to note that four of the composers represented, and more than half of the disc’s length, were born between 1840 and 1842 and that the addition of the others only extends this period to 1818 to 1874. It was indeed music from that period which showed Sargent off at his best. His Bach and Handel performances were old-fashioned even for the time.
Unsurprisingly the best performance by far here is that of Holst’s Beni Mora Suite. This was one of the conductor’s great favourites and he used to include it in broadcasts and live concerts whenever possible. The orchestra were, and sound, thoroughly familiar with the piece and play it with understanding and real care. For the Holst enthusiast the disc is worth having for it alone. The other performance to which I have returned several times is that of Adolf Schmid’s once popular arrangement for string orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile. This is played with great dignity and beauty, without affectation or excess. The Sullivan and Chabrier items have panache and wit whilst lacking any kind of coarseness.
The remaining items are less worthy of revival. Good as it is to hear Joan Hammond’s impassioned performance in the Letter Scene, it must be admitted that it is hard to imagine her as recorded here as a young girl, and although the booklet states that it is sung in English no words are audible … or are given in the booklet. The other items are given adequate but unexciting performances.
The booklet essay by Jürgen Schaarwächter is a robust and interesting defence of Sargent’s place in the history of the Proms. All in all this disc is an fine reminder of his contribution to musical life in post-war years, with the Holst in particular showing that there was much more to him than his “flash” exterior.
John Sheppard

MusicWeb International – December 2012

It is hard now to recall the extent of the affection and respect with which many music-lovers, especially those who attended the Proms, regarded Sir Malcolm Sargent in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember making a slightly disrespectful remark about his conducting to an ardent Prommer and being treated thereafter with suspicion. Nowadays his name is more likely to bring to mind the cancer charity founded in his memory, and even that has been reduced to just part of the acronym CLIC Sargent. Nonetheless as this disc reminds us, he was a conductor with solid virtues even if they may not have extended as far as some may have judged at the time. Even if from what was said at the time he was no favourite with orchestral players.
Although the disc begins with 24 seconds of applause – no date or place of recording given – it is not of a live concert. It is nonetheless representative of the kind of music that might have appeared at the Proms, and in particular at the last night, during the years in which he presided. It is interesting to note that four of the composers represented, and more than half of the disc’s length, were born between 1840 and 1842 and that the addition of the others only extends this period to 1818 to 1874. It was indeed music from that period which showed Sargent off at his best. His Bach and Handel performances were old-fashioned even for the time.
Unsurprisingly the best performance by far here is that of Holst’s Beni Mora Suite. This was one of the conductor’s great favourites and he used to include it in broadcasts and live concerts whenever possible. The orchestra were, and sound, thoroughly familiar with the piece and play it with understanding and real care. For the Holst enthusiast the disc is worth having for it alone. The other performance to which I have returned several times is that of Adolf Schmid’s once popular arrangement for string orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile. This is played with great dignity and beauty, without affectation or excess. The Sullivan and Chabrier items have panache and wit whilst lacking any kind of coarseness.
The remaining items are less worthy of revival. Good as it is to hear Joan Hammond’s impassioned performance in the Letter Scene, it must be admitted that it is hard to imagine her as recorded here as a young girl, and although the booklet states that it is sung in English no words are audible … or are given in the booklet. The other items are given adequate but unexciting performances.
The booklet essay by Jürgen Schaarwächter is a robust and interesting defence of Sargent’s place in the history of the Proms. All in all this disc is an fine reminder of his contribution to musical life in post-war years, with the Holst in particular showing that there was much more to him than his “flash” exterior.
John Sheppard

Audiophile Audition – 14.10.2012

An authentic Last Night at the Proms, mostly 1959, recreated by Guild, revives our sense of what magic “Flash Harry” Sargent could conjure up for the British public.
Who better than Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) to lead us through an evening at the London Proms, when we consider it was he who re-popularized the tradition – set originally by Sir Henry Wood – after World War II? Sargent, working with the new Controller of the London Proms, William Glock, instituted a new sort of repertory for the public that would include “What they will like tomorrow.” The stable of possible entries opened up to include contemporary compositions, even if they might prove “a chamber of horrors” to some conservative tastes. Flamboyant, dapper, and the perennial bon-vivant, Malcolm Sargent managed to consolidate musical tastes and sell the musical results to the public; and this disc, culled mostly from 1959 inscriptions, testifies to a broad and catholic taste that does not “horrify.” The one 1956 inscription, of the Holst Beni Mora Oriental Suite, certainly attempts to expand the public’s notion of the composer and his “exotic” predilections.
The Sullivan Overture di Ballo (1889) opens the concert (15 September 1959), a piece molded after Nicolai or Suppe that struts easily musical styles in the form of a polonaise, waltz, and galop. The rendition, lucid and transparently compelling, highlights the BBC choirs most effectively, especially the woodwinds and strings. Australian soprano Joan Hammond (1912-1996) joins Sargent (1 August 1959) for Tchaikovsky’s “Letter Scene” from Evgeny Onegin, sung in a clear resonant English. The scene, rife with impetuous passion, burns with the usual conceits of fire and ice, ardor and guilt, as Tatiana confesses her love to Onegin. “Are you angel or devil?” laments Tatiana in her ecstasy, described in glowing orchestral timbres by the BBC. No wonder various soloists with Sargent dubbed him their “guardian angel” in his perfect complement to their own art. The same composer’s Andante cantabile (19 September 1959) in an arrangement by Schmid, projects a delicate intimacy reminiscent of the Barber Adagio but without the bitter anguish.
Most affectionate, the one Slavonic Dance, in E Minor, seems to have been a Sargent staple, and its clear delivery of the Staradavny cross-rhythms and fluent harmonies proves as alluring as anything we have by Talich, Kubelik, or Mackerras. The Holst suite Beni Mora (1909; performed here 29 August 1956)) exists as the result of his frustration with his opera Sita, and his subsequent sojourn to Algeria to recover his confidence. Holst took the title from a novel by Hitchens, The Garden of Allah, later to become a film starring Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich, and Basil Rathbone. The third movement of the three dances, “In the Streets of the Ouled Nails,” features a tune Holst heard on a bamboo flute. The cleverness of the orchestration has gleaned for Holst the appellation as his first “mature” orchestral composition. The brightly colored “lollipops” (Beecham’s epithet for popular classics) by Chabrier, Litolff, and Elgar shine with their respective glitter and panache. Shura Cherkassky performs at his usual colorist best in the Litolff; and, most appropriately, the Elgar March in D appeared at the Last Night of the Proms (19 September 1959). Despite the virtually ubiquitous presence of this piece, it assumes under “Flash Harry,” as Sargent was popularly known, a demonic string propulsion and splendor in the horn work and snare drum that revives the blood. “Impeccable” would be the apt judgment the critics would make then, and it works no less well for us now. Applause by the way, at the very entrance of Sargent and at his last chords in the Elgar.
Gary Lemco