GHCD 2421 – Sir Malcolm Sargent – On with the Dance!, 1960-1962
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent (conductor)
MusicWeb International – October 2015
In retrospect, the period 1967-1968 was one of some symbolic importance for the way in which conducting was popularly perceived in the UK.
The year 1967 saw the death of Sir Malcolm Sargent. It may seem hard to believe today, but fifty years ago he would probably have been familiar to the average man in the street, thanks to the immense popularity of the annually televised Last Night of the Proms. He was, moreover, easily recognisable in purely physical terms as a dapper man-about-town, elegantly suited and invariably sporting a trademark carnation in the buttonhole of an immaculately tailored jacket.
Sargent’s debonair appearance and his light, rather refined voice with its slight but distinctive lisp, encouraged the general public to regard him rather fondly as something of a toff. Society’s upper echelons were, however, not so welcoming. They were fully aware that Sargent was not from a patrician background at all: as the son of a local Kent coal merchant, his real origins were working class. Moreover, in an age when adultery was tolerated behind closed doors but certainly not openly, his notorious philandering caused even friends to regard him, in the quaintly dated language of the time, as something of a “cad” and a “bounder”. His invariable sobriquet “Flash Harry” was probably – at least from their own not essentially musical point of view – fully deserved.
Music critics were also frequently scathing. As Robert Matthew-Walker notes in his very useful booklet essay, they sometimes suggested that Sargent’s interpretations of complex scores amounted to something of a dumbing-down. In his Music: a joy for life, written less than a decade after Sargent’s death, ex-Prime Minister Edward Heath suggested other reasons for their hostility: “In the world of professional music … there were always those ready to sneer. … [H]e did conduct too many concerts a year; perhaps his repertoire of major works was somewhat limited; perhaps he did lack sympathy with the avant-garde products of contemporary music festivals; and perhaps he was snobbish to the non-musical world” (quoted in John L. Holmes Conductors: a record collector’s guide [London, 1988], p.244.).
In fact, within just a year of Sargent’s death there had been a sea-change, as his place as the UK’s best known conductor was taken by a very different personality indeed. As well as being more than a generation younger, André Previn, who became the London Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Conductor in 1968, was informal, relaxed and approachable. He wore the era’s most modish clothes, soon married the film and TV star Mia Farrow, clocked up regular appearances in the gossip columns and on chat shows, was seen in all the trendiest hot-spots and was a fully paid up member of Swinging London’s meritocratic smart set.
While both Sargent and Previn were masterly communicators on television, the ways in which they exploited its opportunities offer a neat example of their differing styles. Sargent, on the one hand, revelled in his somewhat patronising demeanour as he presided annually over The last night of the Proms. Previn, on the other, donned a trendy polo neck for regular peak time – but audience-free and cosily intimate – broadcasts of Andre Previn’s music night and, under the guise of “André Preview”, happily mugged with comedians Morecambe and Wise on Christmas specials.
André Previn’s arrival on the scene virtually consigned Sargent and his fussy mannerisms to the proverbial dustbin of history. Though still well regarded as quite possibly the greatest choral conductor in British musical history, he is more often recalled today as the butt of jokes, as when Sir Thomas Beecham supposedly referred to Herbert von Karajan as “a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent”.
Thank goodness, then, for his legacy on disc. Sargent had first entered the studio in 1924 and returned regularly thereafter. While some of his recordings over the years – notably those of the great choral warhorses and others in which he acted as a notably sympathetic accompanist in concertos – were well regarded, others tended to be assessed, in a golden age of conducting giants, as uncompetitive also-rans and were quickly relegated to budget label status. Judicious scouring of the archives has, however, brought several of them back for generally positive reassessment. A mini-series from Guild Historical, of which this release under consideration is merely the latest, has played an important part in that rehabilitative process. Thus, my colleague Jonathan Woolf considered that Sargent’s contribution added “considerable drama and tension” to Moiseiwitsch’s 1955 account of Delius’s piano concerto (review) and that he was “the perfect man” to support soloist Cyril Smith in concertante works by Rachmaninoff, Dohnányi and Dvořák (review). John Sheppard, meanwhile, was quite taken with a disc that attempted to recreate an evening at a 1950s proms concert and featured works that “showed Sargent off at his best” (review). Reviewing an all-Tchaikovsky CD, Stephen Greenback praised the “warm and committed performances” and considered that “Sargent has a real feel for this music” (review), while its all-Rachmaninov successor impressed him with Sargent’s restrained refusal to overindulge the scores’ lush romanticism (review). There’s also a Sibelius disc that’s well worth looking out for, given that John Whitmore thought it combined a “rather enjoyable” account of the first symphony with a “tremendous” one of the fifth (review).
We are back to lighter fare in this new Guild Historical release. As its title implies, it focuses on ballet scores, with a couple of Johann Strauss II waltzes thrown in for good measure – making up a commendably full 78 minutes. All the recordings were made in the early 1960s in a period stretching over a little above two years. The original stereo analogue sound was good for its time and, as re-mastered here, has come up rather well, though, as you would expect, it is obviously not on a par with the finest recordings produced today.
One doesn’t think of Sargent as a conductor particularly associated with ballet. Indeed, the CD cover’s juxtaposition of the injunction ‘On with the dance!’ and a dour and stern-looking image of the composer is, the more you look at it, remarkably odd. In fact, however, he had intermittent experience with ballet throughout his career. Within just six years of making his professional conducting debut, Sargent was conducting for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in both its 1927 and 1928 London seasons – an association that might have gone on longer had Diaghilev not died in 1929. At the other end of his career, in 1962 he was to be found in the pit at Covent Garden conducting performances of Les sylphides and then taking the orchestra into the recording studio to set his interpretation – in his own arrangement of the music – down for posterity. No doubt, too, in the intervening thirty-odd years and especially during the Second World War when there was an understandably huge demand for light, entertaining repertoire, he performed music for dance on many occasions. As that latter point suggests, it would be idle to pretend that this repertoire is in any way musically demanding. It deserves, nevertheless, to be treated with care and respect and it certainly gets both from Sargent. Robert Matthew-Walker’s booklet notes point out, for instance, that the conductor performs the Strauss waltzes with scrupulous attention to the original scores, including full repeats as well as introductions that other performers often excise.
Those two waltzes, bookending the disc’s contents, actually go rather well. Admittedly they don’t bring to the mind’s eye those youthful, attractive virtuoso dancers who, for the benefit of the worldwide TV audience, add a little visual glamour to those annual New Year’s Day broadcasts from Vienna. But Sargent’s conception is on a rather more grand and controlled scale than that. If his accounts bring a picture to mind at all, it’s one of the Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth leading their courtiers and the entire diplomatic corps in a rather stately circuit or two of the Hofburg Palace’s splendidly decked out ballroom. These versions are certainly none the worse for that, however, and I enjoyed them much more than most Johann Strauss that I hear.
The ballet music – or, rather, a portion of it – from Rossini’s William Tell is also winningly done, as is the brief Schubert Rosamunde track. The music from La boutique fantasque is not the complete 1919 ballet but Sargent’s own selection of highlights that are presented as a suite; he has, moreover, re-arranged it so that the orchestration – for slightly reduced forces – emerges as less strident and rather more mellow.
To my own mind, Sargent’s own 1962 orchestration of Les sylphides is probably the disc’s highlight. In general, the approach is rather more lush and luxurious than we are used to in Roy Douglas’s more familiar 1936 arrangement. Given the delicacy of the ballet itself, it might be suggested that Sargent’s arrangements are simply too rich. Arguably that’s true – but they are hugely enjoyable to listen to, all the same. Sample for instance, the first of the two mazurkas. Unlike Douglas, Sargent initially adds a few intriguing introductory bars to whet the appetite for something exciting to come, before launching into an arrangement that consistently displays real flair and élan and even becomes, at one or two points, quite deliriously and gloriously manic. Sargent’s orchestration is more varied and imaginative than Douglas’s and brings into play wider ranges of both orchestral colour and dynamics. I loved it.
In fact, this was a disc that brought increasing pleasure with each listening. Every track is not only well directed but is also expertly performed by one or other of the orchestras. Even if your own living room isn’t quite on the scale of the Hofburg, you’ll be waltzing – or even mazurka-ing – around the coffee table before you know it.