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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1933) [31:26]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 4 in A minor (1910) [35:18]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. Royal Albert Hall, 16 August 1963 (RVW); 2 September 1965. Stereo. ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL42372 [67:43]
Experience Classicsonline


Here are two individualistic, angry or brooding fourth symphonies. They are conducted by Malcolm Sargent whose reputation glowed brightly through his association with the Promenade concerts and the great choral festivals of the 1940s and 1950. For a long while he was venerated and rather like Kathleen Ferrier was counted among the saintly Elect - beyond criticism. However his following and his popularity faded in the wake of his death. Extra-musical factors also played their part in disenchantment including his ruthlessly dry-eyed approach to orchestral musicians. In this he was not alone.
 
In the present disc we get a chance to reassess Sargent in two Proms performances preserved in broadcast stereo. It’s very much to his credit. We hear him in symphonies each of which represented a crashing gear-change for their composers. Sibelius 4 can still seem a difficult pill to swallow. Its emotional distancing, cold and even shivering dissonance are such a contrast with the first two symphonies and even with the benevolent classical pantheism of the Third. As for the Vaughan Williams one has only to compare it with its neighbours: the lamenting beauty of The Pastoral with its trumpets echoing across devastated battlefields and the seraphic Bunyanesque paragraphs of the Fifth Symphony.
 
The RVW Fourth is given as furious a first movement as you are likely to have heard - white hot goaded and driven in the manner of  the composer's famous 1930s recording with the same orchestra. There is repose but where the score indicates extremes of speed Sargent applies them with a will. I confess that it is exhilarating if not quite as white hot as the Mitropoulos version. As for Sargent’s Sibelius he recorded the Second and Fifth Symphonies, Pohjola's Daughter and other popular shorter pieces variously with the BBCSO and the Vienna PO for EMI Classics. They are or were available on an EMI Seraphim double. His Fourth is, by contrast with the RVW4, a slowly savoured performance which in the first movement brings out the soulful side of the music. In fact this memorably different approach pays dividends when the grander climaxes come. It is interesting to hear Sargent's way with this music taken down within months of Karajan's classic commercial recording for DG. Let's not forget that Sibelius was during the 1960s still something of an outré taste and there must still have been doubts whether fashion was turning in his favour. There's a lot of audience noise, bronchial and fidgeting, but it's an integral part of the atmosphere which you can cut with a knife in this recording. This is more than enough compensation for the occasional slip such as the muffed entry by the horn at 2.10 in the finale of Sibelius 4 and some sour notes from the brass later in the movement.
 
Perhaps we can now hope for archive recordings of Sargent’s versions of Martinů's Epic of Gilgamesh, Alwyn's Lyra Angelica and RVW’s Ninth Symphony to be issued. I fervently hope so. An aside but having mentioned Martinů I wonder whether anyone has recoverable recordings of Tausky's BBC 1950s studio cycle of Martinů symphonies.
 
The technical quality for these two recordings is stunning - a tribute to the BBC engineers of those days. It's the Proms so you must however get used to coughs and shuffling. In overwhelming compensation you experience all the dangerous intensity of a live event.
 
Rob Barnett
 



 


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