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Malcolm Sargent - The Great Recordings
rec. 1947-1966, various locations
See details at end of review
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 634121 [18 CDs : 1321:30]

The trend for record companies to issue big box sets of conductor’s back catalogue has grown by mammoth proportions of late. Pick up any classical music magazine and there are advertisements for commemorative sets of artists such as Giulini, Walter, Kertesz, Kubelik and Abbado, just to mention a few. New ones appear each month. There’s a 17 disc Jochum Symphony Edition from DG due for release soon. I am certain each box set will be a delight to many, especially those on tight budgets.

Sargent’s profile, compared with that of other contemporary English conductors, has taken a bit of a backseat as far as reissues are concerned, so this Warner Icon set redresses the balance. Containing a generous anthology of his EMI/HMV mono and stereo recordings, these 18 generously filled discs, comprise over 22 hours of music. It’s at budget price — an attractive proposition providing good value for money.

With a recording career spanning 42 years (1924-1966), Sargent amassed a sizeable and varied discography. He was atypical in that he worked freelance, never signing exclusively for one label: ‘Anyone can employ me to conduct, any soloist can ask for me and any record company can issue me. I have never signed myself up exclusively anywhere or with anyone’. In the forties, fifties and early sixties he was a stalwart of the English concert scene and was at the helm of the Hallé (1939-42), the Liverpool Philharmonic (1942-48) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1950-57). As chief conductor at the Proms (1947-67) he had tremendous influence in the programming of concerts, conducting nearly 50% of them himself. Here large-scaled choral works were a prominent feature, causing Thomas Beecham to remark ‘he is the greatest choirmaster we have produced’. His reputation as a choral conductor was established during these years. His readings of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, examples of which are present in this set, were all staples of the English choral scene. His popularity also rests on his forays into lighter music. He had a great interest in Gilbert and Sullivan and conducted performances at the Savoy Theatre in London. Eight of the G&S operas were recorded by him - see review. Other activities included the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts, the Robert Mayer Children’s Concerts and the Royal Choral Society. He was knighted in 1947.

Sampling the set, I found many good things. It isn’t my intention to discuss each recording individually, but to highlight some of the highpoints and one or two of the disappointments this eclectic and exciting collection has to offer.

Discs 1 and 2 are devoted to works which make up the standard, staple orchestral fare. There’s a serviceable account of Beethoven’s Eroica, but it does not compete with the best. Schubert’s Unfinished does, however. It is the first time I have encountered it and it is pretty impressive. Recorded in 1961, the Orchestra is the Royal Philharmonic, who play with warmth and feeling, responding well to the conductor’s expressive phrasing. Similarly, the overtures by Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Wagner with the same band from a year earlier are lovingly realized. I also enjoyed the Rossini overtures with the Vienna Philharmonic (1960) — engaging performances. There is, however, some lack of brass definition in the louder sections of the William Tell. Rossini is also represented in a sprightly and rhythmically vibrant performance of the Concert Suite La Boutique Fantasque in Sargent’s own arrangement of Respighi’s orchestration.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations were recorded in 1959 with the Philharmonia. Sargent had previously recorded the work with the LSO in 1953 for Decca. Many years ago I had the Ace of Clubs LP, but I have no recollection of that performance now. This version is excellent, with the conductor conjuring up an atmosphere of Englishness. Each of the variations is well-characterized. The Serenade for Strings whilst warm and expressive doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as in the hands of Barbirolli. Sargent’s Delius is very much in the same vein as Beecham. I enjoyed A Song before Sunrise, but in the Songs of Farewell the choral sound is rather congested and lacks clarity. Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is wonderful. In more than acceptable sound for 1956, Sargent had this work at his fingertips, having premiered and filmed it in 1946.

The set contains three large-scale ‘oratorios’ by Handel, Mendelssohn and Elgar — though Elgar objected to the term for his work. The Handel Messiah dates from 1946, and was the first of several recordings the conductor made of this choral monolith. Although it gets off to a slow, tedious start, the tempi are perfectly acceptable as the work progresses. The four soloists are fine, yet the dated mono sound can be hard-edged and unforgiving. For those who like the ‘full-forces’ approach, this version will be acceptable, but it’s certainly not to my taste. Similarly with Elijah, the mono sound is a disadvantage. A much preferable recording for me is the Frühbeck de Burgos version on EMI. When we come to the Elgar, Sargent made two recordings of Gerontius, the first in 1945, excellently transferred on Testament (once on Pearl) and this one from 1954. Sargent excels in this work and both recordings have much to offer. The only drawback for me, with the recording under review, is the dated mono sound. The soloists are ideal, especially the tenor Richard Lewis who went on to record the work with Barbirolli in the mid-sixties in what for me is my number one choice in this work.

Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast by Coleridge-Taylor fares better than most of the recordings here soundwise, though as a work I find it tedious and boring (also on Heritage). I’ve never heard it before and I hope I will never hear it again. It’s one redeeming feature, other than the sound quality, is the appealingly lyrical voice of the tenor Richard Lewis in ‘Onaway! Awake, beloved!’.

In the Bliss Piano Concerto, the English pianist Trevor Barnard meets the technical challenges admirably. Sargent is a sympathetic partner, responding intuitively to the romantic sweep of the music. Apparently it was a cherished ambition of Barnard to record the composer’s Piano Sonata, which he did in 1999 for Divine Art. Another English pianist, Denis Matthews, is the soloist in the Rubbra Piano Concerto. Although a noteworthy performance, I found the recorded sound a little coarse-edged in parts.

The Planets must have been one of those works that Sir Malcolm performed many times. Although it benefits from state-of-the-art digital sound, this 1957 recording with the BBCSO and Chorus is extremely compelling. In ‘Mars’, after the sinister opening of rhythmically incisive col legno bowing of the violins, Sargent builds the music up into a climax of terrifying proportions. ‘Mercury’ is characterized by capricious woodwinds. In ‘Neptune’ no-one has quite achieved that other-worldly quality that Sargent evinces from his wordless chorus. The other Holst items also fare well, and are in decent sound. In the Walton works, the First Symphony was taped in 1966, a year before the conductor’s death. It is not one of his finest recordings, and I understand he was already ill at the time. There are inconsistencies in the performance with some inappropriate tempo fluctuations. Belshazzar’s Feast has the disadvantage of being in mono.

Vaughan Williams is represented in several fine recordings from the fifties. The Wasps Overture is sprightly, jovial and well-paced. There’s an exceptionally fine Tallis Fantasia from 1959 with the Philharmonia in good sound. However, the highlight of the selection for me is the Serenade to Music. Sargent opts for four soloists — apparently the composer’s preference — over 16. They are exemplary. Sargent coaxes a sensitive and poetic performance out of all concerned. Larry Adler is the harmonica soloist in a lovingly aired Romance in D.

Sargent was a friend of Sibelius and championed his works when the composer was not exactly high up in the popularity stakes. Sir Malcolm was a superb Sibelius conductor and it is regrettable that he did not record a complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies. He confined himself to Symphonies 1, 2 and 5 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra; there is a live recording of the 4th on BBC Legends, which I haven’t heard. Warner have issued Symphonies 1 and 5 in this box, and it is disappointing that the very fine 2nd hasn’t been included. Sibelius’ Symphony no. 1 is in excellent stereo sound dating from 1956. It’s captivating, albeit lacking some orchestral detail. However, it is the 5th Symphony (1958) which is one of the highlights of the set. It’s an intelligent, well-paced reading, dramatic in its intensity, with Sargent bringing many insights. A few weeks ago this symphony was the chosen work for MusicWeb International Recommends, and my recommendation then was the 1932 Robert Kajanus/LSO recording. If the opportunity for that choice came again, I would not hesitate to add this Sargent performance to the list. Pohjola’s Daughter, also with the BBC SO, is a stunning success, the dark and brooding opening gradually opening out into a performance of visceral tension. The other Sibelius works were recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1961 and improvement in sound quality reflects this five year leap forward. I would single out the tone poem En Saga for its passion and drama; it is a version which stands up there with the best.

Grieg’s Lyric Suite certainly lives up to its name. An excellent performance, one of the best, with movement 1 ‘Shepherd’s Boy’ full of bucolic splendour, and the halcyon ‘Nocturne’ fervent in its expression. In ‘March of the Dwarfs’ the diaphanous woodwind is a delight. In Smetana’s overture The Bartered Bride, Sargent and the RPO are rhythmically incisive, and carry it off with élan. Má vlast from 1964, again with the RPO is marred by the over-emphatic and self-regarding ‘Vysehrad’, and the slightly mannered ‘Vltava’ (Die Moldau). For this work, I would look to one of the many recordings made by Rafael Kubelik - unsurpassable in this work.

Excellent, informative liner-notes are provided by the late Lyndon Jenkins; this together with his article on the conductor in the Spring 2014 issue of Classical Recordings Quarterly, must have been one of his last pieces of work. Booklet notes are in English, German and French. Like many of the Icon sets there are duplications of already available material and some notable, glaring omissions.

Sir Malcolm was a particularly fine accompanist and some will lament the exclusion of concerto performances with such stellar artists as Fournier, Du Pré, Rostropovich, Tortelier, Ogdon and Lympany, to mention a few. However, as with Giulini, a separate box set of concerto recordings could be on the cards for the future, let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Stephen Greenbank

And another review ...

I commend Stephen Greenbank’s review but would add a few comments. I too have only sampled my way through this collection.

This is a weighty set which will serve in some measure as a corrective to the sort of received adverse opinion that I ignorantly harboured for many years. Now that I listen to his recordings and try to extricate from the music-making his behaviour towards orchestral musicians and the views of others I find a great deal here to value.

The choral discs do indeed seem plodding and thick textured. The mono doesn’t help but it is more than that. There’s a certain self-regarding density about the Mendelssohn, Coleridge-Taylor, Handel and Elgar Gerontius. It’s even abroad in the Belshazzar’s Feast although that does crackle with energy at times. Beyond that there is pleasure to be had from Sargent’s RVW – which I learnt via a CFP - or was it MFP - LP. His Planets is much better than I had recalled but his extraordinarily good Beni Mora and Young Person’s Guide – both first heard by me on a secondhand 10” LP – are wonderful. The sound quality on that disc was startling for its age.

The Bliss and Rubbra piano concertos are completely enjoyable although the Rubbra seems, more than ever, to be a suite with piano rather than a full-on concerto. His Elgar Violin Concerto with Heifetz is also not to be missed; it’s on Naxos (review).

Sargent’s Sibelius is up to scratch – imaginative and fascinating in the case of the Pohjola’s Daughter taken down only a year after the composer’s death. The Fifth Symphony is very good indeed while the First is penny plain, even superficial - almost facile. By the way, Guild has just issued what appear to be the same contents as CD 16 on their GHCD 2414. No doubt Guild’s was from LP stock where Warners will have had access to the masters.

It is such a pity that Sargent did not record as adventurously as his studio and concert activities with the BBC and otherwise might have promised. Broadcast tapes of the following survive: Alwyn Lyra Angelica, Delius A Mass of Life, Bliss Beatitudes (1962 premiere issued by Dutton), Julius Harrison Requiem, Martinů Epic of Gilgamesh, Bax Symphonies 3 and 4 and Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 9; the latter now to be heard on Pristine PASC234. As late as 1965 he conducted Constant Lambert’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament with the wonderfully oaken-toned Raimund Herincx.

When Sargent was on-song he was a force to be reckoned with even if his relationship with orchestras was tempestuous.

Rob Barnett

Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphony 3 ~~ Elgar Enigma variations ~~ Handel Messiah ~~ Sibelius symphony 1

Review indexes: Britten ~~ Holst ~~ Rubbra ~~ Vaughan Williams

Arda Mandikian (soprano), Norman Walker (bass), Isobel Baillie (soprano), Gladys Ripley (contralto), James Johnston (tenor), Harold Williams (baritone), James Milligan (bass-baritone), Marjorie Thomas, John Cameron, Arnold Greir (organ), Elsie Morison (soprano), Marjorie Thomas (contralto), Duncan Robertson (tenor), Trevor Anthony (bass)
Larry Adler (harmonica), Eric Gritton (piano), Richard Lewis (tenor), Harriet Cohen (piano), Trevor Barnard (piano), Denis Matthews (piano), Gunter Lorenz (cor anglais)
BBC Women’s Chorus, Royal Choral Society, Huddersfield Choral Society
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Pro Arte Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent

Complete list of contents
CD 1 [76.50]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 in E flat Op.55 ‘Eroica’ [51:38]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.8 in B minor D759 ‘Unfinished’ [25:05]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1961/1960

CD 2 [75.31] Overtures
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia [7:42]
Guillaume Tell [12:34]
Il viaggio a Reims [6:56]
Semiramide [12:53]
Wiener Philharmoniker
Recorded: 1960, Musikverein, Vienna
La scala di seta [6:43]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Le Carnaval romain [9:33]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Hebrides (‘Fingal’s Cave’) Op.26 [9:14]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg [9:49]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1960, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London

CD 3 [75.44]
Gioachino ROSSINI

La Boutique fantasque: Concert Suite (orch. Respighi, arr. Sargent) [20:04]
Ernst von DOHNANYI (1877-1960)
Suite in F sharp minor Op.19 [32:17]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1961, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Suite élisabéthaine (from the incidental music to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’) [23:10]
Arda Mandikian (soprano)
Female chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra
Recorded: 1955, Kingsway Hall, London

CD 4 [68.22] / CD 5 [78.50]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah HWV56 (Complete concert version arr. Sargent) [147:02]
Isobel Baillie (soprano), Gladys Ripley (contralto), James Johnston (tenor), Norman Walker (bass)
Huddersfield Choral Society, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1946, Huddersfield Town Hall / 1944, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

CD 6 [64.19] / CD 7 [59.44]
Elijah Op.70
Widow/Angel: Isobel Baillie (soprano)
Angel I/Queen: Gladys Ripley (contralto)
Obadiah/Ahab: James Johnston (tenor)
Elijah: Harold Williams (baritone)
Huddersfield Choral Society, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1947, Huddersfield Town Hall

CD 8 [76.24]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme ‘Enigma’ Op.36 [30:10]
Serenade in E minor Op.20 [14:10]
Philharmonia Orchestra
Recorded: 1959, St Augustine’s, Kilburn, London
George Frideric HANDEL

Overture in D minor (transcr. Elgar) [5:43]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1959, Kingsway Hall, London
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
A Song before Sunrise [6:11]
Recorded: 1965, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Songs of Farewell (Whitman) [19:25]
Royal Choral Society
Recorded: 1964, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

CD 9 [71.15] / CD 10 [67.22]
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Belshazzar’s Feast [34:07]
James Milligan (bass-baritone)
Huddersfield Choral Society, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1958, Huddersfield Town Hall Edward ELGAR
The Dream of Gerontius Op.38 [95:11]
Gerontius/The Soul of Gerontius: Richard Lewis
The Angel: Marjorie Thomas
The Priest/The Angel of the Agony: John Cameron
Huddersfield Choral Society, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1954, Huddersfield Town Hall
Charles Hubert H PARRY (1848-1918)
Jerusalem [2:47]
Thomas ARNE (1710-1778)
Rule Britannia (arr. Sargent) [3:53]
The National Anthem (arr. Elgar) [2:39]
Arnold Greir (organ)
Royal Choral Society, Philharmonia Orchestra
Recorded: 1952, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London

CD 11 [74.33]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Aristophanic Suite ‘The Wasps’: Overture [8:51]
Fantasia on Greensleeves (arr. Ralph Greaves) [5:02]
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded: 1957, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis [15:06]
Philharmonia Orchestra
Recorded: 1959, St Augustine’s, Kilburn, London
Serenade to Music [13:30]
Elsie Morison (soprano), Marjorie Thomas (contralto), Duncan Robertson (tenor), Trevor Anthony (bass)
Toward the Unknown Region [12:18]
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded: 1957, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Romance in D for harmonica with strings and piano [6:48]
Larry Adler (harmonica), Eric Gritton (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded: 1952, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
St Paul’s Suite Op.29 No.2/H118 [12:31]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1965, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London

CD 12 [74.45]
Gustav HOLST
The Perfect Fool: Ballet Music Op.39/H150 [10:11]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1961, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Beni Mora: Oriental Suite Op.29 No.1/H114 [14:05]
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded: 1956, Kingsway Hall, London
The Planets: Suite Op.32/H125 [50:11]
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Women’s Chorus
Recorded: 1957, Kingsway Hall, London

CD 13 [75.52]
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast Op.30 No.1 [31:37]
Richard Lewis (tenor)
Royal Choral Society, Philharmonia Orchestra
Recorded: 1961, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Edward GERMAN (1862-1936)
Henry VIII: 3 dances (1892) [7:23]
Nell Gwynn: 3 dances (1900) [9:25]
Pro Arte Orchestra
Recorded: 1960, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
Capriol Suite [9:56]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1965, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Simple Symphony Op.4 [17:20]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1961, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London

CD 14 [80.44]
Benjamin BRITTEN

Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell Op.34: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded: 1956, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
William WALTON
Façade: excerpts from Suites Nos 1 & 2
Polka (1st Suite No.1)
Valse (1st Suite No.2)
Swiss Jodelling Song (1st Suite No.3)
Tango-Pasodoble (1st Suite No.4)
Tarantella – Sevillana (1st Suite No.5)
Scotch Rhapsody (2nd Suite No.2)
Popular Song (2nd Suite No.5)
Old Sir Faulk (2nd Suite No.6)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1961, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Recorded: 1966, Kingsway Hall, London
Recorded in the presence of the composer

CD 15 [73.54]
Arnold BAX (1883_1953)
Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex)
Harriet Cohen (piano)
Unnamed orchestra
Recorded: 1947, No.2 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Arthur BLISS !891-1975)
Piano Concerto
Trevor Barnard (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Recorded: 1962, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Piano Concerto Op.85
Denis Matthews (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded: 1956, Kingsway Hall, London

CD 16 [79.37]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.1 in E minor Op.39
Recorded: 1956, Kingsway Hall, London
Pohjola’s Daughter: Symphonic Fantasy Op.49
Symphony No.5 in E flat Op.82
Recorded: 1958, Kingsway Hall, London
BBC Symphony Orchestra

CD 17 [73.12]

Finlandia: Symphonic Poem Op.26
En saga: Tone Poem Op.9
Lemminkäinen Legends Op.22
The Swan of Tuonela
Günter Lorenz (cor anglais)
Karelia Suite Op.1
Wiener Philharmoniker
Recorded: 1961, Musikverein, Vienna
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Lyric Suite Op.54
Philharmonia Orchestra
Recorded: 1959, Kingsway Hall, London
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
- The Bartered Bride: Overture
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1960, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London

CD 18 [73.50] Bedrich SMETANA
Má vlast
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1964, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London