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Sargent’s Beethoven
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No.4 in B flat, op.60 (1806) [31:13]
Symphony No.5 in C minor, op.67 (1807) [31:33]
Edvard GRIEG

Lyric Suite, op.94 (1891) [14:32]
National Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. November 1945 (op.60 – from Decca AK 1384/7); 2 January 1945 (op.67 – from Decca AK 1126/9); 9 January 1946 (Grieg – from Decca AK 1412/3) – Kingsway Hall, London. ADD
BEULAH 3PD13 [77:18]

Poor Malcolm Sargent – the butt of many jokes and the recipient of the wrath of orchestral musicians. I have been told tales by some who worked with him and under him. One can never forget Beecham naming Sargent "Flash Harry" because of his dapper taste in clothes. Then there were Beecham’s more scurrilous comments that Herbert von Karajan was "a musical Malcolm Sargent". When Sargent’s car was shot at, whilst he was on tour in the middle east in 1938, Beecham said "I had no idea the Arabs were so musical!"

But it wasn’t Beecham, but a daily newspaper, which gave the public one of its best jokes with regard to the conductor. Sargent was conducting Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, in a live radio broadcast at Helsinki University, at the exact time of the composer’s death which produced the unfortunate newspaper headline: "Sibelius dies after hearing Sargent conduct Fifth Symphony". It must have been a field day for his detractors.

Despite these barbs, we must not forget that although Sargent and Beecham were never close, they did, jointly, form the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932. It was Sargent who made their first recordings (19/21 September 1932 at the Kingsway Hall) leaving Beecham at the helm to conduct the opening concert on 7 October 1932 .

It was his comments concerning the musician’s lot which really brought him lifelong hatred from the profession. In 1936, the Daily Telegraph interviewed Sargent about musicians’ employment rights: "… as soon as a man thinks he is in his orchestral job for life, with a pension waiting for him at the end of it, he tends to lose something of his supreme fire. He ought to give of his lifeblood with every bar he plays. Directly a man gets blasé or does not give of his very best he ought to go." And pensions should only be paid, "at the end of the musicians life when he has poured out ungrudgingly his whole strength." Jack Brymer remembers that "Sargent was hated by orchestras overnight", and thirty years later there were musicians who would still not speak to him (Richard Aldous: Tunes of Glory: The Life of Malcolm Sargent (Hutchinson 2001, Pimlico 2002)).

On a lighter note, in 1944, when the "musical" Malcolm Sargent met the real one, he said that "When the Fuhrer gets to London, you will be shot." Ever the English gentleman, Sargent replied, "Thank you. How gratifying to be on the wanted list of the SS". But despite his detractors and his gaffe with the press, Sargent became the darling of the public, keeper of the faith in a series of recordings of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for seven years (1950/1957), Conductor-in-Chief of the BBC Proms (from 1957 to the end of his life) and one of the leading choral conductors of his time. A world figure – he conducted in Australia and America as well as Scandinavia, Europe and the Far East – he was welcomed wherever he appeared, until the 1950s when a change came about in music with the desire for everything to be new, at all costs. True, he was a vain man, a ladies’ man to be sure, a raconteur, but over the forty years (yes, it’s forty years) since his death there has never been a major reappraisal of his art. Above all, whatever else he was, Malcolm Sargent was a musician.

Sargent certainly made a lot of records – starting in 1924 with excerpts from Vaughan Williams’s, then new, opera Hugh the Drover. This was with William Anderson, Frederick Collier, Tudor Davies, Peter Dawson, Mary Lewis, Constance Willis with a chorus and orchestra. The coupling in recent years was Vaughan Williams conducting his own ballet music Old King Cole and The Wasps Overture on Pearl GEMM CD 9468 (1999). Sargent and the BNOC had recently premiered Hugh the Drover. If you look on the Amazon website there’s over thirty pages of listings of his recordings! Some years ago Dutton gave us a CD of Sargent conducting the (then) Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in English music, which included a lovely Lark Ascending (with David Wise) and a very fine Hymn of Jesus which transcends the 1944 recording techniques (Dutton CDAX 8012). It’s impossible to forget his Dream of Gerontius (the 1945 performance with Heddle Nash, coupled with Tortelier and Sargent’s 1953 recording of the Cello Concerto (Testament SBT 2025) or the 1954 performance with Richard Lewis, coupled with Belshazzar’s Feast (Classics For Pleasure 5859042) or Elijah (Classics For Pleasure 5759752) which are essentials of the catalogue.

Richard Aldous’s book, from which I quoted earlier, should have gone some way towards a rehabilitation of Sargent, but it didn’t and I wonder at his real standing in light of contemporary musical life.

Sargent’s story is that of the local boy made good. He played piano and organ when young and became an ARCO in 1912. He was apprenticed for two years to Dr Haydn Keeton, Master of Music at Peterborough Cathedral, then, in 1914, he moved to St Mary’s Church at Melton Mowbray, as organist. In 1919, Sargent formed the Melton Mowbray Operatic Society and conducted Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience in 1920 and Iolanthe the following year. By this time he was composing, had gained his doctorate - at 24, the youngest ever in Britain. For the Queen’s Hall Orchestra’s visit to Leicester in 1921 he had been asked to write an overture. Impressions of a Windy Day (available on ASV Sanctuary CDWHL 2113, played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Gavin Sutherland) was the result and Sargent got to conduct it. Eight months later he conducted it at the Queen’s Hall in London. In 1926 and 1927 he was conductor of the Llandudno Pier Company Orchestra, giving the seaside Bantock, Beethoven, Elgar, Schubert and Wagner, as well as his own Nocturne and Scherzo, Valsette and his setting of Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark (see Kenneth Young: Music’s Great Days in the Spas and Watering Places, MacMillan, 1968). Thereafter, his career is well documented – the LPO, the Courtauld/Sargent concerts, the Proms, and the BBC.

Despite the fact that Sargent made a fine series of recordings of the Beethoven Piano Concertos, with Schnabel, it’s easy to forget that he was not just a conductor of English and choral music. Therefore, Hurrah for this disk!

There’s much to be admired and enjoyed in this performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony – the excellent ensemble in the staccato chords of the slow introduction to the first movement, the high tension as the music builds to the Allegro vivace, which simply bursts out of the speakers with life; high spirits abound. Let’s not forget that this is only one of Beethoven’s two truly light-hearted mature symphonies – even the Pastoral has a storm in it. The slow movement is never allowed to slip into romantic gesture and the scherzo goes off like a rocket, but is shorn of the repeat of the second part of the scherzo. The finale returns to high spirits with some wonderfully bucolic bassoon solos and the exposition is repeated! I suppose that this was done as the movement was bound to run to two sides of a 78 disc and there was sufficient time. The first movement would not have fitted and it’s a joy to hear those four first time bars and to have more of this fabulous music-making. I haven’t enjoyed this symphony so much in years! Full marks for the interpretation. I can’t help thinking how frustrating it must have been, when listening to the original 78s, to have the music stop at the end of each side and have to wait those precious few moments it took to turn the record over before being able to rejoin Sargent and his players in sheer pleasure.

The Fifth Symphony isn’t quite as successful a performance for one simple reason: Sargent sees the first twenty-four bars of the first movement as an introduction, before the music can really get going. And get going it does – until the exposition is repeated (bravo) – when we get the portentous application of the brakes for the first twenty four bars. Then again, for the first four bars of the development section (bars 125/128) the brakes are applied, before the music once more takes off. And so on, throughout the movement, whenever the famous four notes appear on full orchestra everything comes to a standstill. Bars 303/306 contain the usual reorchestration of the bassoon part for the horns. However, despite this rather annoying habit, this is thrilling stuff and one is quite carried away by the sheer verve of the playing and the interpretation – the wind band is especially fine. The slow movement is very well paced, with only a rather large rallentando heralding the end of the 78 side. The scherzo races along, with lots of fun in the manic trio with the fugal string entries - exciting bass and cello playing here. In general, the timpani have not recorded well, but when it really matters, as in the transition music from scherzo to finale, the drums are most telling and very well captured. Then comes the excitement and culmination of the musical journey. Sargent pushes the music along and, as you’d expect, he doesn’t repeat the exposition although I do have the feeling that there might have been room on the 78s for it. It’s a shame it wasn’t repeated for this is such a good performance that I would have welcomed more music.

I do have a couple of niggles about these transfers.

In the second and fourth movements of the Fourth Symphony it feels as if the 78s’ surface sound has been faded out too quickly, just before the end of the reverberation of the final chord. OK, a small point but a significant one – it disturbs the listening experience. In the Fifth Symphony, in bar 123 of the slow movement – which is obviously the moment where the first 78 side ended – there is a long-held chord followed by two pizzicato chords. The second chord is clearly audible, but not the first one – I am sure it is there, but under the held chord, masking it, and making it all but inaudible. I tried many different ways of trying to hear if there was a fault and I am still not 100% sure what is going on. Again, a small matter, perhaps, but it’s disturbing not being able to hear what is essentially the start of a new section. It has the feel of a beat of music being missing. What happens in the finale is much more disturbing. In bar 63 Beethoven writes a D major crotchet chord for the full orchestra, followed by three crotchets rest, then, in bar 64, a G major chord, for violas, bassoons and clarinets held for three crotchets (with a C natural passing note in the first bassoon). In this performance, in bar 63 the silence is only one and a half crotchets in length. However, in the repeat of this section, in bar 272 the crotchet G major chord - we have changed key by now - is followed by a single crotchet rest before passing on to a C major chord (in the first inversion) in bar 273. The question must be asked, is this Sargent’s doing or is it an anomaly which has occurred in the transfer? The second time feels as if it happens over the side-break, but the first feels as if it is a natural progression of the interpretation. Whatever it is, it upsets the forward momentum of the music and I do feel that something is missing. On first hearing, with the pause being of an irregular number of beats, it is really disturbing. If it’s Sargent’s interpretation then so be it and we have to put up with it, no matter how frustrating it may be, but if it is a fault of the transfer then it should be rectified. I make no apologies for being technical in this discussion.

Whatever my worries these are electrifying performances: alive, alert, brimming with energy and fire, but with poetry in the slow movements. There are no frills in these readings; Sargent is truly the servant of the composer. What is more, I haven’t been as excited by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a long time.

If this wasn’t enough, there’s a delightful performance of Grieg’s Lyric Suite to complete the disc. The final March of the Dwarfs is a real rollicking affair.

Interestingly, the 78 surface sound has been left on the CD between the movements of the Lyric Suite, but not between the movements of the Beethoven symphonies. I would have welcomed the continuation of the sound all the way through each work: it would have been an aid to concentration instead of, in a way, being given four separate segments for each work.

The original recordings were engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson in the Kingsway Hall and they are very clear, giving a good balance of the various sections of the orchestra. The winds and brass, when playing in consort, are especially well captured. The usual losers are the oboes which, when playing solo, are too quiet and distant, but they always make their presence felt in a wind tutti, and the timpani, except where mentioned earlier.

Barry Coward’s transfers are fine, with a little surface noise remaining, thus allowing the upper frequencies to register. This is how transfers from 78 should be.

I cannot welcome this disk too highly. It’s great music-making which should be heard by anyone interested in the art of performance and everyone interested in music.

Sargent’s Beethoven? No. Our Beethoven, thanks to Sargent.

Bob Briggs


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