Reviews

GHCD 2425 – Sir Malcolm Sargent & Ruggiero Ricci – Tchaikovsky 1950 & 1955

Ruggiero Ricci (violin), New Symphony Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra

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MusicWeb International, September 2016

Malcolm Sargent, somewhat confusingly perhaps, made two recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in the space of five years. This is the earlier, made in 1955 with the BBC Symphony, whereas at the end of the decade he recorded it with the LSO for Everest, where it can again be found on SDBR3039.
As a previous Guild CD has demonstrated [GHCD 2409] Sargent was a dedicated exponent of Tchaikovsky’s music, espousing it often at the Proms. At the time it was not uncommon for conductors to take the near 100 bar excision in the finale that the composer had employed when conducting the symphony in Hamburg. Schmidt-Isserstedt, Mengelberg and Furtwängler were just three of the most prominent conductors who shared Sargent’s view, following the 1889 composer’s precedent.
Released to mark Sargent’s 60th birthday this is a finely conceived, architecturally cogent reading that highlights a purposeful account featuring fine individual contributions from the BBC principals. However, when one turns to the later Everest recording one encounters a very different sonic and interpretative landscape. Here Sargent is on galvanizing form, the LSO surpassing the BBC in terms of individuality, and the sound itself, using 35mm tape, of demonstration class. As a result, this 1955 recording, which preserves some LP detritus, is the less imposing and recommendable.
This Guild disc is a game of doubles. Sargent recorded the Fifth twice in the 50s and the same is true of the Violin Concerto – on both occasions with Ruggiero Ricci, the second time with the LSO. This 1950 Decca recording with the New Symphony Orchestra was the first British LP of the Concerto to be released and I reviewed Pearl’s transfer back in 2002, the year Ricci retired.
As I wrote in that long-ago review, I have to admit that I was surprised how good the concerto sounds. Ricci evinces real style and his own brand of bravura. There are some fairly typical of-their-time textual emendations to the score but there is much to admire in his typically forthright and extrovert performance.
The galvanizing violin run around 4.50 in the first movement, with its rubato maybe slightly theatrically imposed, is exciting (but doesn’t it seem just slightly artificial?). Ricci’s vibrato is exceptionally fast, as ever, though it’s not, in this recording, as violently oscillatory as it could sometimes become and sounds here under firm control. He is vibrant, expressive with no gauche slides and good finger position changes. Sargent is an excellent foil for Ricci and shapes the work with excellently contoured understanding. Listen in the second movement where both soloist and conductor prepare the lyrical argument with superbly timed aplomb. Maybe there is some rather smeary playing from the soloist and a little – surely forgivable – sentimentalising though Ricci’s attitude to such criticism would doubtless be as robust as his playing – he was once quoted as saying that it was “better to be a prostitute than a nun” and, translated into musical terms, that meant overplay rather than understate. The finale is steady and effective, one small intonational blemish aside, albeit that it’s not the most convulsive and propulsive account or one that I’d assumed it would be.
Robert Matthew-Walker’s notes are characteristically precise and Guild’s transfer is smoother than Pearl’s thornier but attractive one. Its release offers two good performances, though the symphony is to be heard to better advantage in the recording on Everest.
Jonathan Woolf

Audiophile Audition/ February 20, 2016

Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) had long proved a strong advocate for the music of Tchaikovsky, so in 1950 Decca arranged for him and Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012) to record what would become the first LP version of the Violin Concerto to be issued in Europe. Given the burnished tone of Ricci’s 1734 Guarneri del Gesu instrument, the Concerto certainly has its moments of sweet bravura. While the scale of Sargent’s performance seems less grand than say, Ormandy’s, and less ferociously intense than that of Mitropoulos, the streamlined affection – among the faster of first movement renditions – remains palpable. Ricci treats the first movement cadenza strictly like an extended Paganini caprice, rife with slides, spiccati, and brilliant changes of register with double stops. I remain skeptical about the cuts that he and Sargent take for the first movement and the third, while I do concede that the original manifests much filler in the repeated two-bar and four-bar phrases. Ricci can perform with blinding speed when he wills, and the heat he generates compensates for the lack of heroism in the orchestral part.
The Canzonetta: Andante movement will easily win admirers, given Ricci’s heartfelt warmth of expression. The pace moves relatively quickly, without sentimentality. The last movement Allegro vivacissimo enjoys the full “Russian” treatment, with Ricci’s digging into the progression with gypsy flair, especially in the secondary theme, which exploits a kind of bagpipe sonority in open fifths. Sargent’s strings and woodwinds provide a balletic backdrop to the proceedings, gently limpid. The dialogue between clarinet and oboe, flute and bassoon will likely call up images from The Sleeping Beauty. The last pages truly involve the sanguine temperament, with vivid and pungent collaboration from all principals to resound at the final bars with a thrilling coda. The sound restoration from Peter Reynolds captures Ricci elegantly.
The Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, a Sargent staple, had its recording in 1955 – in the USA, RCA LM-1947 – in order to provide Sargent a 60th birthday present. In the (dubious) tradition of Mengelberg, Furtwaengler, and Schmidt-Isserstedt, Sargent takes the so-called “authorized” cut of some 100 bars in the last movement. For me, this decision proves ill-advised, since it robs much of the fervent drama of the finale, which the likes of Koussevitzky and Mravinsky opt to retain. A pity really, since the Sargent version, up through the first three movements reveals extremely powerful sympathy with the large gestures of this “fate” symphony. Sargent possesses a natural flair for the rubato that works well in the waltz-like portions of the opening Allegro con anima, and the response from his BBC strings and winds proves persuasive and sonically acute. The “fate” motif and its militant permutations receive heroic stature.

For those contemporary critics who found the Sargent version more potent than that by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the key lies in the second movement, the Andante cantabile. Several commentators point out that the return of the main theme – so often a Hollywood call for sentimentality in its “passing parade” – at bar 158 excels in passionate utterance, including some striking oboe playing that ensues. The French horn part – possibly Sydney Coulston – makes points suavely, as do the complement of BBC wind players. British conductors – Lambert, Coates, Beecham, Boult and Sargent – retain a great sensitivity and flair for the music of Tchaikovsky, despite the fact that professional musicians find his music cloying. The Valse movement lilts in luscious harmony, the clarinet suavely advancing the melodic lines to the fellow wind and string associates. The secondary theme figures enjoy the distant cadential beats from the tympani. The combination of the two motives sways and sachets in romantic fashion, unaffected but stylishly ardent. The last movement – until the excision that finds its “justification” in the composer’s insecurities – could have been one of the great ones. Everything about Sargent’s treatment leans to the colossal and the ominously fateful. So, too, do I lament the Mengelberg performance on the same grounds. If the entire matter boils down to a matter of taste, you have in this BBC performance under Sir Malcolm Sargent a terrifically robust inscription.
Gary Lemco