GHCD 2409 – Sir Malcolm Sargent – Tchaikovsky 1955 & 1960

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Manoug Parikian (solo violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent (conductor)

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American Record Guide – September/October 2015

Sir Malcolm Sargent was one of the best pops conductors of his generation and certainly knew his way around Tchaikovsky. These studio performances from 1955 (Suite 3) and 1960 are stylish and are in fine sound. But coming to them immediately after listening to a dozen CDs of Russian music conducted by Pierre Monteux, I can only think: what a difference between style and genius. Artillery is included in the 1812 Overture as was then the fashion.

Fanfare – July/August 2015

Back in the 1970s, the UK issued a set of stamps honouring four celebrated British conductors – John Barbirolli, Thomas Beecham, Henry Wood and Malcolm Sargent. Adrian Boult, whose image would probably have joined theirs had he not been still alive and active, once had this to say about his colleague Malcolm Sargent: “He was a great all-rounder but never developed his potentialities, which were enormous, simply because he didn’t think hard enough about music – he never troubled to improve on a successful interpretation. He was too interested in other things, and not single-minded enough about music.” I can’t resist quoting Beecham’s wisecracks about Sargent, although he was known to praise him at other times. Once when Sargent was visiting Palestine, his car was caught in rifle fire. Beecham’s reaction: “I never knew the Arabs were so musical.” He also described Herbert von Karajan as “a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent,” whatever that may mean. Although Sargent was esteemed as a choral conductor and accompanist, he was reputedly so tough a drillmaster that he was unpopular with orchestra players.
Grudgingly or not, he gets excellent results from the Royal Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra on these recordings. When I received this CD for review, I was puzzled by its release. To be sure, Sargent was a busy and popular conductor during his lifetime, but I doubted that he had generated the sort of posthumous cult that would justify an all-Tchaikovsky CD that even included a mono recording (the Theme and Variations) among its contents. As it happens, my scepticism was unjustified, for these are all idiomatic, highly satisfying performances and the Romeo and Juliet is something special, though in more ways than one. First of all, it’s one of the strangest “stereo” recordings I’ve ever auditioned. It starts out with the strings bunched in the middle, with the only conspicuous directionality coming from the horns (on the left) and the trumpets (on the right). By the time the music concludes, the violins have sneaked over to the left and the cellos to the right. It’s still quite a vivid and detailed recording, just strange. Other than the fact that the solemn wind chords that open the piece are played legato, there is nothing unusual about the performance, except that some detail that often slips by is made audible by Sargent’s care for balances and the reasonable tempos he sets. He also makes some telling tempo adjustments. I have to watch my superlatives here since Romeo is a piece in which over 100 conductors, ranging from Abbado to Zinman, have had their say, sometimes in multiple recordings and unofficial ones; but I believe that, even if I had heard every recording ever made, Sargent’s would easily make my top 10 percent. So there.
Sargent’s moderate, unflashy delivery of the Waltz from Sleeping Beauty gives the music a graceful swaying quality that I found delightful – I’ve never heard it performed better.
Marche salve is certainly rousing enough, though his fast tempo in the coda deprives it of some of its triumphal swagger. If I am less enthusiastic about the results in the 1812 Overture, that’s probably because I got tired of the piece years ago, and if Sargent’s is out-gimmicked by some other productions he holds his own musically. I have heard many live performances of the Theme and Variations, most of them conducted by Robert Irving. When George Balanchine choreographed the music, he lengthened Variation Number Six (a flashy number for the premier danseur) by repeating the first section, turning an ABA into an AABA. The repeat was included at every performance I attended and I have become so accustomed to it that, when I hear a recording, it sounds as if the conductor is making a cut when he doesn’t take it. Needless to say, Sargent doesn’t insert it in his performance, which comes to us in vivid 1955 monaural sound, evidently a product of EMI’s reluctance to embrace stereo recording I wish he hadn’t whipped up the big final variation – other conductors have given it a more majestic treatment that I prefer – but it’s a spirited, engaging performances, nonetheless.
This CD turned out to be quite a pleasure to listen to, but it enters what is, to put it mildly, a crowded field and I wonder for how long it will be available.
James Miller

Audiophile Audition – April 2014

The colorful Malcolm Sargent delivers an equally colorful series of Tchaikovsky performances from vintage appearances with the Royal Philharmonic.
The flamboyant British conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) led the Henry Wood Proms concerts in Britain, especially after the death of Sir Thomas Beecham, often specializing in Russian repertory. The assembled works of Peter Tchaikovsky in this Guild reissue derive from inscriptions Sargent made for HMV in 1955 and 1960. The performance of the familiar 1876 Marche Slav (rec. 5 January 1960) typifies the approach: the energized virtuosic treatment – winds, brass, snare drum, and cymbals in bold relief – highlights the series of patriotic themes Tchaikovsky utilizes to claim sympathy for the Russian side of the Serbo-Turkish war, in which Russia aided the Serbs, and Tchaikovsky needed an occasional piece for a Red Cross concert. Auditors familiar with the Rodzinski and Mitropoulos renditions from Cleveland and New York, respectively, will find Sargent’s Royal Philharmonic equal to their example.
The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy (1880) underwent several revisions by the composer, including a softer ending Stokowski favored. Influenced as much by Balakirev’s insistence on sonata-form as by Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, Tchaikovsky fashions his patented emotional response to the literary opus, his establishing a B Minor chorale as the source of despair and then vaguely outlining a conflict that finds transcendent consolation in the ardent love-scene. Does the periodic cymbals’ clash symbolize the swordplay in the drama, especially Romeo’s fateful slaying of Tybalt? The music moves briskly to the funeral march and love music played itself as a dirge. A series of misterioso chords from the RPO woodwinds answered by strings, harp and pedal points invokes the transformation of the lovers into legend, finalized by the big-chord, tympanic ending. Sargent’s earthy rendition (25 January 1960) at 21 minutes gives more breadth to the score than Cantelli’s of the same period, but far less than Celibidache, who lingers forever over every phrase.
The popular Act I Waltz from the 1889 ballet Sleeping Beauty celebrates Princess Aurora’s sixteenth birthday. The RPO flute, horn, strings, and glockenspiel combine (27 January 1960) for some lilting colors. Curiously, this reviewer first heard this enchanting waltz in a version by Andre Kostelanetz, equally persuasive. Concertmaster Manoug Parikian lends his solo talent to the violin part of the Theme and Variations from the 1884 Suite in G Major. Except for a CBS LP version of the complete Suite by Thomas Scherman and a slightly later version by Sir Adrian Boult, few recordings of the entire opus existed, since conductors like Kempe and Matacic seemed content with the permutations of the finale alone. Sargent divided his recording sessions – 24 March and 8 June 1955 – for the HMV recording. The nicely graduated series of color variants shows of the RPO to advantage, in Russian, British, Slavic, and even Latin (via the Dies Irae) characters. Parikian’s contribution against the piping winds and pizzicato strings deliberately instills a balletic muse into the proceedings. Sargent effects a lovely transition to the pageant that marks the extended, brilliant coda, a fine demonstration of the RPO’s capacity for grandeur as well as exalted lyricism; more the pity that Sargent did not enjoy the EMI imprimatur to record the whole Suite.
The Sargent rendition of the 1882 1812 Overture is straightforward, with the addition of military cannon and extra brass and organ for the coda. After Igor Bouketoff’s windfall recording for RCA with chorus, most purely orchestral versions seem pale, missing the invocation to the Lord to deliver Russia from the onslaughts of Napoleon. But like Dorati’s famed Mercury extravaganza, Sargent’s plays the piece for all the pomp his forces can muster. Kitsch, but splendidly exciting nonetheless.
Gary Lemco