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GREAT CONDUCTORS OF THE 20th CENTURY 11: NICOLAI MALKO
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)

Ruslan and Ludmilla: Overture (1)
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)

Symphony no. 2 in B minor (2)
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

The Snow Maiden: Cortège, Dance of the Tumblers (3)
Piotr Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

The Nutcracker: March, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Russian Dance, Chinese Dance, Dance of the Reed Pipes (4)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Symphony no. 7, op. 131 (5)
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Symphony no. 92 in G, Hob. 1/92 – "Oxford" (6)
Franz von SUPPÉ (1819-1895)

Dichter und Bauer: Overture (7)
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Symphony no. 9 in E minor, op. 95 – "From the New World" (8)
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)

Maskarade: Overture (9)
Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra (9), Philharmonia Orchestra (1-5, 7-8), Royal Danish Orchestra (6)/Nicolai Malko
Locations: Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen (9), Kingsway Hall (1-5, 7-8),
Odd Fellow Palast, Copenhagen (6)
Dates: 26.9.1947 (9), 8.4.1953 (6), 4-7.2.1955 (5), 23.9.1955 (2), 9-11.2.1956 (4), 16-17.2.1956 (8), 17.2.1956 (1), 18.2.1956 (7), 1.3.1956 (3)
EMI CLASSICS CZS 5 75121 2 [2CDs: 79’01"+78’30"]


Among the names included in the first batch of this IMG/EMI collaboration, that of Nicolai Malko, a largely forgotten figure, may raise eyebrows. So I shall start by outlining his career.

Malko was born in 1883 and included Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Liadov among his teachers. He became conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1926 and conducted the première of Shostakovich’s First Symphony in the same year. However, he was succeeded by his pupil Evgeny Mravinsky only two years later when the tightening of the Soviet screws against the arts caused him to emigrate.

He held no prestigious post in the West but enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Royal Danish and Danish State Broadcasting Symphony Orchestras and concluded his career as conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He settled in the United States in 1940 where he also taught conducting; his thoughts on conducting technique were gathered in "The Conductor and his Baton" (1950) and a handbook on conducting currently available in the USA (Elizabeth A. H. Green: The Modern Conductor, 1996) is explicitly based on the principles of that book. He recorded quite extensively for HMV in Copenhagen and then with the Philharmonia, mainly Russian repertoire. The Prokofiev Symphony here was the first-ever EMI stereo recording, but his transfer to Australia in 1956 seems to have meant that he made no further records between then and his death in 1961.

A few years ago Danacord paid tribute to him with a double-CD album, "Nicolai Malko: The Danish Connection" (DACOCD 549-550) containing most of his recordings with the Danish State Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra, made between 1947 and 1950, and a few of his Philharmonia recordings from the same period. The Danish recordings include a "New World" which, as I shall discuss fully below, is far from a duplication of that on the EMI Classics album, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Svendsen’s Carnival in Paris and Festival Polonaise, Stravinsky’s Suite no. 2, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, three works by Tchaikovsky – the Capriccio Italien, the Waltz from the Serenade in C and the Lilac Fairy Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty – and, the one duplication between the two sets, Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture. The Philharmonia recordings are all of short pieces: three extracts from Khachaturian’s Gayaneh (including the Sabre Dance, only five years old: was this its first Western recording?) and items by Mussorgsky (the Gopak from Sorochintsy Fair), Rimsky-Korsakov (The Flight of the Bumble-Bee), Liadov (Baba-Yaga), Glazunov (Grande Valse from Raymonda) and Tchaikovsky (Gopak from Mazeppa and Valse des Fleurs from The Nutcracker).

The EMI Classics album is (with the exception of Maskarade) a compilation of EMI recordings from the 1950s, some of them still sounding very fine indeed. However, when most other issues in this series have been the fruit of extensive research and usually contain at least one live item, there is the suspicion that this is a slightly lazy compilation made with an eye to getting extra mileage out of recordings in EMI’s own vaults. At least two items, as we shall see, do not contribute much and a trawl round the radio archives of three continents would surely have found something more revealing.

Incidentally, on a further Danacord issue (Great Musicians in Copenhagen: DACOCD 303) Malko can be heard partnering Piatigorsky (Dvořák Cello Concerto, first movement), Horowitz (Tchaikovsky Concerto, third movement) and Landowska (Poulenc Concerto Champêtre, second movement) in live performances from 1932 and 1934 which sound remarkably well for what they are, though the recording equipment can no more cope with some of Horowitz eruptions than it could with those of a volcano. The booklet amusingly explains how an engineer of Danish Radio built up, on the sly, an archive of some 150 78 sides of classical music in the early 1930s until the higher authorities caught him and indignantly told him to stop. It is not clear whether the performance excerpted exist complete, but the Horowitz should be issued forthwith if it does: this movement is fantastic.

However, both sets have detailed and useful notes (by Robert Layton in the present case) and between them give us a reasonable possibility of assessing whether or not Malko was, in fact, one of the "Great Conductors of the 20th Century".

CD 1

To begin with the Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture was a far more challenging choice than it sounds, for it establishes the whole tenor of what is to come. We are all used to sizzling, virtuosic performances (once-for-all, Solti’s famous – or notorious – version), and when a slower performance comes along it often sounds dull. Not Malko’s. You’ll have heard more dashing interpretations, but it would be hard to find a more buoyantly high-spirited one, with a Mozartian grace to the quieter moments and a lovely singing quality to the famous tune. Both here and in the Rimsky-Korsakov Dance of the Tumblers Malko shows that a steady pace, clear-cut rhythms, scrupulous articulation and careful control of dynamics and colour can reveal far more to these pieces than one would have imagined.

The Borodin, originally coupled with the same composer’s Third Symphony, had a long catalogue life, yielding only when the stereo age relegated to a limbo a host of fine recordings that were too old to be sold as "normal" records and not yet old enough to be "historical". It still sounds well (better than the 1956 recordings, where the Kingsway Hall acoustic sounds more cavernous) and the performance remains a model – it all sounds so right. This is a symphony which can easily fall apart. Malko makes the alternating tempi in the first movement work quite naturally, neither forging ahead too much one moment nor holding back too much the next. The second movement also finds a tempo which is brilliant without losing the effect of the syncopations. The slow movement could stand as a hallmark of Malko’s style. The opening horn solo is not spot-lit, just allowed to express itself gently against the strings’ backdrop, and he is fortunate in a player who can provide such tonal shading in piano (is this perhaps Denis Brain?). Then, at the climax the strings express their melody with deep, noble feeling, no hysteria or excess lushness. I realise that in describing these performances I am often reduced to describing what they are not. I hope I am not giving the impression that they are safe and sound, inoffensive but perhaps not very interesting. On the contrary, their apparent lack of an "interpreter" between us and the composer allows the music to shine all the brighter.

In Tchaikovsky, it is possible to feel that a more human, speaking quality is required in addition to the other virtues. The Nutcracker extracts are just a little dour, and that Malko was consistent in this over the years is shown by the inclusion in the Danacord box of a 1950 Philharmonia recording of the "Valse des Fleurs" (not included in the present selection), again just a touch too serious. Sir Adrian Boult for one (see if it’s still available on Chesky) showed that a straightforward approach can nonetheless exude a wonderful sense of joy.

So the pattern which emerges is that Malko, as a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Liadov, was identified with a certain type of Russian school which does not particularly lay bare its soul in public, is not hysterical or neurotic, does not push to extremes, has no interest in the "Russian dynamo" or the "Russian circus", but rather maintains a lucid control over its emotions and aims at a formal balance of the elements in the composition. These are the Russians, at the opposite extreme to Rachmaninov or Scriabin, or much of Tchaikovsky (who surely had the most complex and varied personality of all Russian composers), who excelled in the telling of fairy tales.

We can only guess at emotional punch which Koussevitzky might have packed in Prokofiev’s 7th Symphony (which he did not live to know) and we know what various other Russian conductors have done with it. Without any lack of power or vitality, the lasting impression of Malko’s performance is of an almost Mozartian classicism. Since any other approach will, by its nature, emphasise some elements at the expense of others it has to be said that, whatever the thrills and spills offered elsewhere, Malko makes us realise what a very fine symphony this is.

Although it was originally issued in mono, this was EMI’s first stereo recording. It had a longish catalogue life (coupled with the same composer’s 1st Symphony) and, since it still sounds well, it remains a pretty well ideal version for repeated listening.

CD 2

Denmark had a fine native Haydn tradition deriving from Mögens Wöldike (will he get a volume in this series?) whose recordings of some of the late symphonies with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra are of imperishable vitality. Whether or not Malko actually slimmed down his strings, this is a swift, vital performance (and, in the slow movement, warmly expressive with no trace of romanticism) to match any since. For the first three movements I did wonder if it was just a nice souvenir of conductor and orchestra rather than a document to be disinterred half a century later, but the vitality of the finale is exceptional and Haydn-lovers should keep this for reference.

That Malko had a fine way with the classics can also be heard on the Danacord album, which contains a 1950 performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, but only in the second half (side 2 of the original 78). The first four minutes or so are rather flabby but then (stiff doses of Schnapps all round before cutting side 2?) the performance suddenly becomes superbly taut. What a pity they didn’t go back and cut side 1 again in the same way.

Poet and Peasant is lively enough but given the reverberant acoustic and the far from brilliant sound (inferior to the "New World" recorded the day before or the Prokofiev of the previous year) its inclusion seems rather pointless.

Malko’s "New World" was a staple of the Music for Pleasure catalogue in the days when bargain-label LPs could still be sold in mono only. It was never regarded as much more than a sound, reliable version and eyebrows would have been raised if anyone in the late 1960s had prophesied its return in the next century as a "historical" issue. Maybe tastes have changed. The first edition of the Penguin Guide to Bargain Records gave top place, if I remember rightly, to two versions which took a very free and rhapsodic view over tempi: Fricsay and Kubelík (with the VPO on Decca). I think a critic today would feel it irresponsible to recommend such versions without strong provisos – "If you want a red-blooded romantic performance …" etc. Whereas now, even Malko’s minor tempo adjustments in the first movement might seem too much. And then, at the other extreme, Toscanini’s recording had come out only a few years before Malko recorded the present performance and continued to be regarded as authoritative for a good many years. Again, I think times have changed and Toscanini’s response to the symphony now seems ultra-American in a rather brash, hard-hitting way.

To tell the truth, the first movement did not entirely dispel my doubts, although I appreciated the clarity with which Malko presented all Dvořák’s many counter-melodies and piquant details of orchestration. The spacious performance of the Largo remains deeply affecting. As in the Borodin and the Prokofiev, Malko reveals a notable capacity to involve the listener without apparently imposing himself upon the music. The last pages of this movement can drag interminably; under Malko they do not, and this in spite of the broad tempo. I think it is the simple sincerity of the performance which shines through.

A brisk but joyful – and not over-driven – performance of the scherzo, with the episodes relaxed just enough to lilt but no more, had me comparing it favourably with any other I had heard. However, it is the finale which makes this version important. At a slightly broad tempo, all Dvořák’s references to themes from the previous movements – often criticised as rhapsodic, un-symphonic, and often sounding so – fall into place. Malko doesn’t jerk you out of your seat or leave you gasping for breath, but few conductors leave you feeling so satisfied at the end of a symphony.

If, in weighing up whether to buy both this and the Danacord album, the prospect of having two New Worlds seems discouraging, then I suggest that this is actually a strong reason for getting both. At first everything seems in favour of the Danish version, especially since the recording, though limited in the forte passages, is not bad for 1948 and certainly lets us appreciate the subtlety of Malko’s dynamic shading in the quieter moments. Here, I think, lies the clue. Malko is described in the Danacord booklet as being very patient but also very exacting at rehearsals. I have the feeling that the Danish orchestra had allowed him just that much more time to perfect his interpretation. The introduction is characterfully phrased whereas the London one is slightly bland, and the first movement is electric here, with the lyrical passages better integrated into the whole.

If the London performance of the Largo was beautiful, the Danish one is wonderful. Malko takes a whole minute longer and the players seem spellbound – as I was. Just one detail: as the strings take up the famous melody, originally sounded on the cor anglais, notice the balance between the hushed violins and the more burnished, expressive cellos and violas. However good an orchestra is, it takes time and patience to get this sort of thing exactly right.

Regarding the other two movements, I am not so sure. The scherzo is only five seconds shorter but it seems breathless. Here I feel the greater virtuosity of the Philharmonia players allowed them to take the brisk tempo in their stride. The finale, on the other hand, is broader in Denmark. Not by a great deal, but enough for it to lose the remarkable sense of cohesion and pace of the London version; it sounds just a little tired.

Comparing these two performances is a good demonstration that, however complete an idea of the music a conductor may have in his head, to realise it totally, in all four movements of a symphony, in one single performance, is a lifelong challenge.

Just as a footnote to Malko’s Dvořák, the 1932 performance of the first movement of the Cello Concerto with Piatigorsky begins slower than I have ever heard, and slows down further still for the horn theme. However, this is nothing to what Piatigorsky does – I’ve never heard such a totally rhapsodic performance (Rostropovich’s indulgent version with Karajan is a model of classical restraint in comparison). It is impossible to know, then, whether Malko was just being a good partner or whether he really liked it that way.

The album ends with the one item in common to both sets – the Maskarade Overture, given with great vitality. The Danacord transfer is acceptable, limited in range and dynamics but fairly pleasing. The IMG one has obtained a little more brilliance, also a little more harshness. One gets the impression that these 1940s Danish recordings were not state-of-the-art even in their time.

So, was Malko one of the "great conductors of the 20th Century"? As I suggested at the beginning, I feel that the Tchaikovsky, Suppé and Nielsen items might have been jettisoned in favour of something live. The other Tchaikovsky items on the Danacord set reinforce the view that he was not enough of a monomaniac to deal effectively with this composer – though the Waltz from the Serenade in C is pretty well ideal in its revelation of Tchaikovsky’s contrapuntal writing. But in the absence of a symphony, or at least a Romeo or a Francesca, it is difficult to be sure. He certainly finds a warmth and poetry, as well as brilliance, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Spanish Caprice (on the Danacord album) that few conductors seem aware of, and there is great poetry and elegance in his handling of Glazunov’s Raymonda Waltz. His personal knowledge of these composers, and Liadov, gives a certain significance to his recordings. He also conducts Stravinsky’s Suite no. 2 with enough humour and colour to suggest that a search in the broadcast archives for a Petrushka or a Firebird might not be time wasted. His sense of balance also meant that he was a more effective interpreter of the Viennese classics than Russian conductors are inclined to be. Here again, a search for some Beethoven or Brahms would have been worth making. As it is, we can say that this issue contains performances of the Borodin and Prokofiev Symphonies that still rank high, and performances of the Haydn and Dvořák Symphonies that should be heard.

Oddly enough, if I wanted just two pieces with which to show that Malko was more than just a fine conductor, they are both in the Danacord set. One is the slow movement of the 1948 "New World", and the other is Svendsen’s "Carnival in Paris". This potentially stop-go piece with its alternation of brilliance and melting moment is handled with the greatest of insight and an ability to get the best out of a minor piece that had me thinking of Beecham. So, in conclusion, I hope we will hear more of Malko. At the very least, his selfless dedication to his art and to the composers he conducted represent an ideal and a shining light which deserve to be remembered.

Christopher Howell

message received

Just a few words to thank you for the thoughtful and extensive review of my late father's 2-CD set. The comparative appreciations are essential to understanding the way my father worked; the immediate grasp of his determination not to interpose himself between orchestra and audience is absolutely crucial. And he was always pleased with the Piatigorsky performance which they shaped together in terms of soloist/orchestra relationship.

One fact to correct, maybe two: my father left the Soviet Union in 1929 because he had already had a debut in Western Europe and wanted to expand his career there. He was, at the time that he left, still conducing the Leningrad. And when he and my mother left (I was not yet born), it was carrying two suitcases. All assumed, or behaved as if they assumed, that they would be return. They didn't, not until 1959 when the Soviets invited him back to conduct in Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad. The US State Department expressed support for the visit and my parents, both US citizens, went back. My mother to her dying day wished they hadn't. She felt, and I did not disagree after working in the old Soviet Union for NBC News, that the return broke my father's heart.

As for what those who have heard it consider one of my father's most sublime performances, it was with the Danish Orchestra and it was Stravinsky's Petite Suite.

With all good wishes, George Malko

 

 


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