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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.1 [37:10]
Symphony No.5 [29:12]
Pohjola’s Daughter [12:27]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 27 August 1956, mono (1); 25-26 August 1958, stereo
GUILD GHCD2414 [78:49]

Along with Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent was one of the four leading British conductors in the decades following World War II. He is remembered internationally for his wide range as a conductor. He was the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for many years and his Sibelius was always exceptionally well received. He knew the composer personally and at the exact moment of the composer’s death he was conducting the Fifth Symphony in Helsinki. In this regard, these newly restored recordings do have a certain authenticity.

Starting with Symphony No. 1 my recollections, from many decades ago, were of a performance that sounded grey, unromantic, dull and lacklustre. I haven’t heard it since its first release on LP and to be honest I had dismissed it in favour of Maazel (1 & 4 ~~ 2 & 3 ~~ 5, 6 & 7) and Collins in my affections. Maybe my initial reactions are somewhat harsh. The opening clarinet theme has the right sense of mystery about it and when the full orchestra enters we hear close, bright harp and woodwinds and a convincing but somewhat unglamorous string sound. The orchestral balance puts many a stereo recording to shame. The second movement is on the slow side - slightly laboured - but then Sargent unleashes a superb Allegro with scurrying winds and bombastic timps. The finale is fine other than the ugly, reticent and stilted phrasing of the great tune on its first appearance. When the theme returns later in the high strings this effect is replaced by a truly romantic legato. This was a strange interpretative decision by Sargent. Overall, this is rather enjoyable and I was pleasantly surprised.

Symphony No.5 receives a tremendous performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in great form, one or two moments of insecurity from the trumpets aside. All the gear changes in the first movement are impressively handled and the structure is virtually seamless. It’s just about as good as any version on record and the stereo recording is wide-ranging and satisfying. It reminds me of the WRC Hannikainen Fifth. Sargent seems to be much more motivated and gripped by the Fifth than he was by the First. The second movement is left to play itself, so to speak and the finale is suitably massive with confident horns and the hammer blows perfectly judged. The only thing it lacks is the sense of sadness and stillness that is captured so brilliantly by Barbirolli’s strings on HMV Hallé.

Pohjola’s Daughter isn’t especially well served in the record catalogue. It can sound notoriously scrappy and wayward even in expert hands. Sargent’s is one of the best. It captures the spirit of the work perfectly, as did Horst Stein on Decca. What Sargent has in his favour is superior orchestral playing compared to Stein’s Swiss band. Two edits can be heard on headphones — from the original recording, I hasten to add — but these are very minor and barely noticeable when played on speakers. The sound is well rounded and the performance is well served by the engineers.

Sargent’s Sibelius is worth hearing. The vinyl transfers are very good but maybe too much tinkering has gone on. In an attempt to reduce the background vinyl noise to a minimum some curious electronic noise has been introduced - similar to the sound quality you get from MP3 files. This is only noticeable in quiet passages but the string tone has also been compromised with a somewhat washy tone. My preference would have been for a shade more background and more realistic strings. Others may disagree. It’s not worth quibbling about because this CD is still tremendous value for money.
John Whitmore

Masterwork Index: Symphony 1 ~~ Symphony 5