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".
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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
With all good wishes, George Malko