An occasional series by Christopher Howell
5. HUGO RIGNOLD (1905-1976)
Of the artists discussed so far in this series, Hugo Rignold is the first I actually saw, three or four times at the Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone. At one of these concerts he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; the others, including the first I attended, a Tchaikovsky evening, were with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, of which he was then the Principal Conductor. This would have been in the late 1960s, towards the end of his tenure with that orchestra.
My first memory is of his very slow walk on stage. I have an idea this was a pose rather than the result of encroaching arthritis or similar challenge. Nevertheless, combined with white hair and a balding pate, it gave an immediate, slightly Boultish, impression of elderliness. My music teacher assured me, though, that he was “not all that ancient” and indeed he was not, having not long turned sixty. Somewhat Boultish, too, was his very clear, undemonstrative baton technique. This still sticks in my mind as one of the most efficient I’ve seen. It must have stood him in good stead, both when conducting popular classics on minimum rehearsal and when giving first performances of complex works in a semi-dodecaphonic idiom - two things for which he was particularly noted.
Slightly less Boultish were a few slightly showbiz-oriented gags. In Rossini’s “William Tell” overture, for example, after the trumpet fanfares introducing the gallop, he lowered his baton and let the orchestra start on their own - or maybe there was some little facial gesture I didn’t get from behind. Then, with the first crescendo, he raised his baton and conducted “normally” to the end. In Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony I was sitting sufficiently near the front to see that he was pulling some extraordinary faces at the musicians in the final stretch. It seemed to get him what he wanted.
Even less Boultish were some odd interpretative gestures inserted into otherwise sound and straightforward readings of the score. At the end of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, having achieved a good deal of excitement, he suddenly played the last four chords very slowly and solemnly. This was actually the first time I heard the work and I supposed it to be a traditional way of ending it. In truth, I have heard a good many interpretations over the years, many far more interventionist than Rignold’s, but I’ve never heard the last chords played that way, even from Mengelberg. In the finale of César Franck’s Symphony, too, having hitherto given a direct, passionate account not unlike the Boult version we had in the school music cupboard, when the second subject returned on the brass, he suddenly slammed on the brakes, creating an effect rather like a band of pompous gendarmes on the march.
In spite of these occasional oddities, I always enjoyed his concerts, though of the other major works I heard him conduct - Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony - I don’t remember anything beyond the fact that I thought them pretty good, particularly the Elgar. My abiding memory is that the conductor’s somewhat staid appearance did not militate against music-making of a certain character and an ability to make hackneyed things like “Peer Gynt” come up very freshly.
Dvořák’s “New World”, the only symphony Rignold ever recorded - so far as I can trace - bears out the impression of a conductor adept at shaping colourful romantic works, but whose structural anchors were not so very deep. But first let us go back a good few years, to 1936 and an encomium that appeared in “Gramophone”:
With the possible exception of the Negro artist, Eddie South, and our own Eric Siday, who is abroad, there have been only two violinists who have hitherto meant anything to jazz. Venuti, of course, and more recently the French musician Stephane Grappelli. To my mind Hugo Rignold is a greater artist than any of them.
Yes! Staid, safe and sound old Hugo Rignold had once been the hottest violinist on the British jazz circuit. So perhaps we should now go right back to the beginning. As ever, I’ve tried to collate the various odds and ends on internet, and I note that quite a lot of memories of Rignold are drifting around. And as always in this series, I am grateful to those bloggers who have enabled me to hear, if not quite everything Rignold recorded, a reasonable amount of it. In particular, Rignold material can be found at The Music Parlour, ReDiscovery, Charm and Random Classics. A few items can be heard on youtube and some of Rignold’s Pye/Marble Arch recordings can be downloaded from Amazon at a minimal cost. The Lyrita Bliss recording is, of course, readily available.
Early training and hot violinist
Hugo Henry Rignold was born in Kingston upon Thames (UK) on 15 May 1905. Both parents were musical - his father, Hugo Charles Rignold, was a conductor and his mother, Agnes Mann, was an opera singer. The family moved to Winnipeg (Canada) in 1910 and it was here that he had his first violin lessons and gained experience playing in the local theatre orchestra. In 1923 he returned to England with a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music and the following year played the Tchaikovsky concerto under Sir Henry Wood (see clipping from “The Winnipeg Tribune”).
His first job seems to have been as a blacksmith, but he was a fully-fledged jazz violinist by his early twenties and a member of Jack Hylton’s band. If you go to the Jack Hylton site you will find six sides for download where Rignold is specifically featured: Barbara (16/09/27 HMV B-5388), Are You Happy, Marvellous (both 13/10/27 HMV B-5387), Just the Same (24/10/27 HMV B-5378), I’m going back to Old Nebraska (27/02/28 HMV B-5444) and My Inspiration is You (12/09/28 HMV B-5530). According to Wikipedia, he was already present in Lady be Good and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from 1926.
In four of these Rignold has little to do - just about enough to show that easy, unforced double stopping in the higher reaches of the instrument were his strong point. In “I’m going back to old Nebraska” and, especially, “Just the same”, he contributes brief but highly effective solo spots. Enough to show that, as Sir Thomas Beecham might have put it, the blighter could damn well play.
Rignold was soon up and going with a band of his own. Three sides from the 1930s can be downloaded from Amazon at a minimum cost. There is no violin solo in “You must have been a beautiful baby” (1938) - presumably he just conducts. He features prominently as soloist in the pairing of “Poor Butterfly” and “Calling all Keys” (both 19.11.1935). Furthermore, while the latter is an energetic display vehicle for the violin, in “Poor Butterfly” he proves pretty effective on the viola, relishing its deeper timbre though, to my ears, he is a tad less secure on the larger instrument. The two together nevertheless make an attractive souvenir of what he could do in this field.
Rignold’s achievement as a jazz artist needs to be assessed by someone more conversant than me with the jazz world. In a general way, it seems to me that British jazz, while swinging along like American jazz, has a distinct, and calmer, character of its own. Away from the neuroses of a fast-growing new nation, British jazz of the 1920s and 1930s exudes the confidence of an empire at its high noon, an empire on which its builders believed the sun would never set. I offer these musings since I think they provide a key to Rignold’s conducting of Gershwin, to be discussed later on.
War and the road to Damascus
Rignold was 34 when war broke out, so got the call-up. An occasional glimpse can be found of Squadron Leader Rignold conducting the band of the RAF Middle East. By 1943, we learn, “Sunday night concerts by the new Cairo Symphony Orchestra, led and often conducted by Squadron Leader Hugo Rignold, became a popular feature”. In 1944 he conducted the Palestine Orchestra, subsequently the Israel Philharmonic. This association always loomed large in his curriculum, though according to the cited Winnipeg article it amounted to two guest appearances. Whatever the details, and whatever the thought-processes behind them, the upshot was that Rignold left Great Britain a jazz violinist and band leader and met some kind of illumination, if not actually on the road to Damascus then not all that far from it, as a result of which he came back home from his wartime service a fully-fledged classical conductor.
A remark by André Previn, who took a similar step a couple of decades later, may provide a clue:
The vogues in jazz are even more ephemeral than in ‘serious’ music. You play jazz as a youth and then suddenly you find a new style has taken the place of yours. I still play today as I did in 1955 and the names I remember are Peterson, Tatum and Bill Evans. I simply can’t keep up with the later trends” (Gramophone 9/1969).
As a jazz musician, Rignold faced a likely post-war career playing pre-war jazz on increasingly provincial circuits to nostalgic admirers growing old with him. He hardly needed a light on the road to Damascus to realize this. At the same time, his Middle East station allowed him to regain his classical skills away from the public limelight.
Back in London, Rignold the classical conductor found plenty of opportunities, in particular at Covent Garden where he was a staff conductor from 1947 to 1948 and became especially associated with ballet. The recording world offered openings, too, at least as a sort of “odd job man”. In 1946, conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra, he accompanied the Italian baritone Paolo Silveri in arias by Rossini - “Largo al factotum” from “Il barbiere di Siviglia” - and Verdi - “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” from “Rigoletto”. In 1948 he conducted an unidentified orchestra in a series of arias for the soprano Gwen Catley, by Mozart (from “Die Entführung”), Saint-Saëns (“Le Rossignol”), Ambroise Thomas (from “Mignon”) and Benedict (“La Capinera”).
A rather more taxing assignment in 1948 was Ravel’s “Shéhérazade”, in which he accompanied Maggie Teyte. This is available on a Naxos “Vocal Portrait” of the singer which I have already reviewed for MusicWeb International. Teyte was, of course, a renowned interpreter of French song, but arguably she should have recorded this work about twenty years earlier. Through the matronly tones, one can appreciate her strong instinct for how the music goes, and sopranos preparing to sing it themselves may glean some nuggets. It was quite a responsibility to entrust Rignold, only just emerging from his dance-band years, with this complex score, but this is actually one of the better conducted versions. Rignold, conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra, provides fluidity and passion, without sultriness and without losing sight of the clarity at the heart of even Ravel’s most steamy scores. The recording is good enough for his contribution to be appreciated (HMV DB 6843-4, 12-13 July 1948, Naxos 8.110757-58).
Rignold found himself in charge of a major orchestra for the first time in 1949, when he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic. Most reference books tell us that this was “a period of unrest and strife”. This phrase is from the memoirs of Peter Mountain, “Scraping for a Living” (2007). Mountain, an orchestral violinist, was later the leader of the Liverpool Philharmonic. His book relates that this orchestra, under Sir Malcolm Sargent, had become one of the finest in the land in the 1940s. Sargent was actually very lucky, since wartime evacuations and reduced musical activities had meant that he could stuff the band with temporarily displaced London players. Rignold’s appointment more or less coincided with the return of these musicians to London, leaving behind a core of somewhat elderly instrumentalists. Rignold, backed by the orchestra’s manager, undertook to relieve them of their duties and replace them with bright young things just out of Academy. Unfortunately, the purge was ill-handled and the Musician’s Union compelled the orchestra to re-employ its ageing ex-members. Anyone reading Mountain’s account might get the idea that Rignold’s Liverpool career finished then and there, but in reality he weathered the storm and remained till 1954. Other accounts suggest that his ultimate reputation gained from his Liverpool years.
Rignold’s other problem in Liverpool was that his predecessor, Sir Malcolm Sargent, had been a pillar of the musical establishment, and some members of the public felt that the Liverpool rostrum should have been off-limits for a former jazz musician. Whether or not Rignold won this faction over, by 1954 he had proved that he could conduct a wide-ranging repertoire and he had a good track record in giving premières of works by such British contemporaries as Alwyn and Fricker.
An attractive glimpse of Rignold at this time is provided by Arthur Butterworth, who went for an audition with him:
At Liverpool, the conductor, Hugo Rignold, said something like ‘...Oh, come in old boy!... What have you got to play? Haydn? Something like that? Good! You’ll have to play without accompaniment - I’m afraid I’m no pianist myself - so when you’ve warmed up just play me a bit of it’. I did. Then he said ‘...Yes, that sounds OK...By the way, d’you know this old cavalry call? Let’s see now (muttering to himself) - how does it go?... Damned if I can play it with one finger on this old honky-tonk, but anyway it’s something like this...’ (We were in the artists’ green room at the Philharmonic Hall which had a rather ancient upright piano as part of the furniture).
I made a flourish on the trumpet, more or less similar to the thing he had tried to thump out on this decrepit piano. He was very affable, asked me if I had been to college, but said not a word about diploma or paper qualifications: he only seemed interested to hear for himself if I could actually play my instrument. He said they’d let me know in a day or two. Sure enough, a couple of days later I had an offer of First Trumpet at a salary of £15.00 a week - excellent money in those days (MusicWeb International).
Note the iron fist behind the affably velvet glove. With the “old cavalry call” gag Rignold had gauged the player’s ability to cope with the unexpected.
The Liverpool Philharmonic had recorded quite a bit under Sargent, and occasionally under others. The only trace I can find - but haven’t been able to hear - of Rignold’s tenure with them is a weird 78 coupling of the Entr’acte and Serenade from Delius’s “Hassan” with the Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” (Columbia DX 1621, June 1949).
Rignold did not immediately take up a new post on leaving Liverpool. Though he had relinquished the position of staff conductor at Covent Garden when he headed Mersey-ward, he was nonetheless active in ballet throughout the 1950s, becoming Music Director of the Royal Ballet in 1957, where he remained until his Birmingham appointment in 1960. It can be easily imagined that his jazz experience provide him with the ability to shape the music nicely over a constant but well-sprung rhythm.
Rignold recorded a fair amount of ballet music with the Covent Garden Orchestra, not only during the three years in which he was actually in charge of ballet there. Downloadable from Charm are Parlophone 78s from 1951 of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance (orch. Berlioz) and the Dance of the Hours from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. In the early days of LP these came out with a version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite by the same forces, which I haven’t heard. The Weber gets a straight-down-the-line performance, maybe too much so, especially in the introduction and coda. Provided you like the approach it goes very spiritedly (Parlophone E.11493). The Ponchielli compares very well with a version set down the previous year by Anatole Fistoulari, generally considered one of the finest ballet conductors. Both are dance oriented - strict time and with very similar tempi. Fistoulari finds more passion, for example in the third section, but Rignold counters this with a touch more humour, so honours are about even (Parlophone E.11489). Other Covent Garden/Rignold recordings from the early 1950s include a suite from Delibes’ Sylvia, again on Parlophone, and a full-LP selection from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on HMV.
Towards the end of the decade, Rignold made a few stereo recordings for RCA, again of ballet repertoire. His coupling of Suites from Delibes’ Coppélia and Sylvia would seem to be his only official recording made abroad - with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. Back home with the Covent Garden Orchestra he set down a quite extensive selection - 50-plus minutes - from Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Excellently recorded and generally well played, this held sway in the British catalogues for quite a few years. It was, at the time, the fullest representation of the music available - alternatives were single-side selections under Ansermet and Stokowski. Later, of course, came complete recordings with Russian orchestras, offering a tangier orchestral sound and a more overtly passionate style of interpretation. There is no denying that Rignold’s orchestra has a very English manner - it had me thinking of updated Wand-of-Youth Elgar or even Eric Coates. The base for it all is the lightly dancing rhythms - this must surely have been an ideal interpretation for actual dancing. The melodies are then affectionately, benignly shaped - the conclusion is very touchingly done - and brassy moments are kept civilized. Listeners will have to decide whether Prokofief really wanted to transform the innocent fairy tale into an expressionist horror story or whether he actually wanted something like this. At all events, the recording conserves, most enjoyably, Cinderella as Covent Garden audiences knew it in the late 1950s (RCA VICS 1138, 1957). Another souvenir of Rignold’s Covent Garden tenure is available from ICA, in a video tribute to Margot Fonteyn in the three great Tchaikovsky ballets - Rignold conducts the second act of the Nutcracker.
Rignold made a number of other recordings for various labels during this decade. Fairly well-known is his conducting of the Philharmonia orchestra in Benno Moiseiwitsch’s re-recordings of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody. Aficionados will debate the pros and cons of Moiseiwitsch pre- or post-war - and there’s a live Rachmaninov 2 with Sargent from 1956 as well. Suffice to say that this concerto performance is glorious with little or no evidence that age might be limiting the pianist’s brilliance. The second movement is breathtaking in its mobile simplicity - real rubato as opposed to stopping at every harmonic lamp-post. The conductor has an awkward role here. He can’t make the performance but he could break it. Suffice to say Rignold is a prompt, expressive and idiomatic partner.
In some ways the Paganini Rhapsody is finer still - there’s more that could go wrong. Moiseiwitsch is pretty well ideal in combining apparent expressive freedom with a much closer observance of the score than in most other versions - never more so than in the 18th variation. Only in one or two strenuous passages - some octaves towards the end - are we reminded that the pianist was getting pretty old by then. Rignold does everything he has to, and if our attention is not drawn towards him this really shows how good he is (rec. 13-14 August [Concerto], 15 August [Rhapsody] 1955, Studio 1 Abbey Road, HMV CLP 1094 & 1072, various CD reissues).
This was not Rignold’s only venture with Rachmaninov concertos and a celebrated soloist, though it is probably the only one that got recorded. Sometime around the late 1960s Vladimir Ashkenazy gave his first performance as a cycle of the four concertos plus the Rhapsody - remember that Rachmaninov still needed special pleading in those days. The conductor was to have been Istvan Kertesz but he fell ill and the whole series - which was not limited to Rachmaninov - was taken over by Rignold. Writing in The Times, William Mann noted that no.4 was “a tough nut to crack” and that Ashkenazy had finally shown it to be on a level with the other concertos. He particularly praised Rignold’s contribution and remarked that Ashkenazy was sure to record the work soon. “Great”, he added, “and I hope Mr. Rignold will be the conductor”. The Musical Times critic, too, felt the notable feature of these concerts was “the increased stature of Mr. Rignold”, singling out for especial praise his conducting of Elgar’s First Symphony.
Another Russian concerto that came Rignold’s way was that of Khachaturian, which he set down with Peter Katin, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. This disc was made in Walthamstow Town Hall, some time between 1958 and 1961, for Everest, though it also appeared on Hallmark and Concert Hall. The concerto gets a scintillating account from Katin, backed with plenty of colour and even a touch of brashness by Rignold. Unfortunately, in the transfer I’ve heard, Katin’s tone comes across as shallow and rather brittle. This is probably not the pianist’s fault, but a slightly warmer piano tone can be heard on the much older version by Moura Lympany and Anatole Fistoulari. On the other hand, while their basic approach is similar, Lympany is sometimes more effortful than Katin. Slower tempi were assayed in 1959 by Mindru Katz and Sir Adrian Boult. Their quest to find a bit more music in the concerto sometimes pays off, but at other times the results are heavy. Their approach is not so different, though, from that of Khachaturian himself in a 1963 off-the-air recording where he conducts the Turin RAI SO with the Italian pianist Sergio Perticaroli. The composer does, however, move things on that little bit in the very passages that get bogged down with Katz and Boult. This might make an interesting historical issue. I suppose there must be a Russian recording somewhere with Khachaturian conducting but I don’t know it. Nevertheless, for a dare-devil, in-your-face account the Katin/Rignold is splendid (Everest, LPBR 6055).
Also during this decade, Rignold recorded some popular repertoire with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Pye, later issued on Marble Arch and on American labels such as Alshire. Some of these are now available as cheap downloads from Amazon.
A fairly full version of Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo - though with no vocals - shows this series at its best. There’s shading and atmosphere a-plenty and in the faster pieces Rignold pushes the orchestra - something he doesn’t always do - to very exciting effect. This doesn’t mean he’s necessarily very fast - the Ritual Fire Dance is actually pretty steady, but with big swirling dynamics. Coming with these are three dances from El sombrero de tres picos. The first of them suggests that rehearsal time might have been running out - the mood is right but outlines are a bit woolly. Things pick up thereafter. The tempo changes of the Miller’s Dance are precisely brought off and the final piece has Rignold firing on all guns again. Somewhat curiously, this disc also has the Galop from Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants. This is delicious, steady but with a real sense of enjoyment. I find no evidence that the rest of the suite was set down, unfortunately.
Dukas’s L’Apprenti sorcier is another piece that shows Rignold’s art at its best. It is unhurried but with abundant rhythmic life, affectionate shaping, buoyant exuberance in the climaxes, a sense of story-telling and a poetically shaped close.
All these same qualities applied to Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain would seem to leave something missing, though it’s certainly a good colourful performance. Rignold doesn’t screw up the tension Mravinsky-style, but then just as you’re thinking that, there come moments when he pushes the orchestra a little further. The last section is very well handled with finely graded dynamics. In particular, the performance reaches its highest level in the last clarinet and flute phrases, where the instruments phrase very freely, yet against a constant underlying tempo - a reminder of Rignold’s jazz origins.
Similarly, the Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel gets an affectionate narration, not the ultimate in precision but with some nice pointing of the lyrical themes and considerable atmosphere. If it doesn’t go beyond niceness, this is because Rignold does not stretch the orchestra to its limits in the more brilliant passages.
For some strange reason, Amazon have made available just the first scene from Stravinsky’s Petrushka, which was actually recorded complete. Thus far, this seems Stravinsky from the Rimsky-Korsakov end. The spirit of the dance is dominant - and maybe it’s a little under-characterized. On the other hand, just as it stopped I had the impression of a symphonically developing canvas, which you don’t always get, so it would be interesting to hear how it goes on.
Still with colourful war-horses, Rignold provided a creditable version of Ravel’s Boléro. The obsessive rhythm is held unswervingly. There is no hint of an accelerando even in the last bars and the tempo is a good one. There are few less-than-immaculate touches along the way - one near the beginning, to show that this is quite likely a single take.
As I remarked at the beginning, Dvořák’s 9th Symphony - “From the New World” - seems to be the only Symphony Rignold ever set down. The LPO’s ensemble and chording are not always tight - a reminder that these cheap labels insisted on minimum session time. Rignold does obtain considerable dynamic shading - with some exquisite pianissimos - and brings out more of the piquant countermelodies than was often the case. The recording is in stereo, with a few artificial effects - woodwind solos brought right forward, for example. The American Alshire pressing, which was the source for my download thanks to Fred of Random Classics, would seem to be missing the final deep chords of the second movement. In 1962 Edward Greenfield, in Gramophone, felt this was the best bargain “New World”, so I suspect the Pye issue did not have this oddity.
Rignold’s treatment of the first movement is best described as “of its time”. Each of the three main themes goes at its own tempo, and Rignold slips in and out of his different tempi with the naturalness of yesteryear’s maestros. He also adds some accelerandos here and there and, though you might not approve of this now, he certainly generates plenty of dash.
The famous cor anglais theme of the second movement is very long-drawn-out, at a tempo unrelated to the opening brass chords. Rignold moves on a little more, to good effect, when the theme is taken up by the strings. So again, a performance that lives for the moment, but not unattractively.
The scherzo goes with spanking vigour and no eccentricities. The finale generally bowls along splendidly, with minimal slackening for the lyrical clarinet melody. Having built it all up very well, Rignold then draws out the rallentandos towards the end more than I’ve even heard before - Tannhäuser came into my mind at one point but he brings it off very convincingly.
Only Saga had the inspiration to draw on Rignold’s combined classical and jazz experience.
Collaboration! brought together the London Philharmonic and the Johnny Dankworth Band which, on its own, provided a performance of Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto. This LP aroused considerable interest. Lionel Salter’s review in Gramophone, for example, stretched to two columns. Both Salter and the various later commentators have always expressed the view that the Seiber-Dankworth “Improvisations” for jazz band and symphony orchestra was the major offering. In Salter’s words, “It is a unique work, the one unqualified success in integrating the two streams, stemming from an understanding between a serious composer of real brilliance and adaptability and a jazz musician of equally rare maturity of thought”. No doubt this is correct, from the standpoint of jazz aficionados. For myself, I got more simple-minded enjoyment from the Salzedo-Lindup “Rendez-vous” for jazz band and symphony orchestra. Whatever it was intended to be, today it emerges as a suite of easy listening pieces, and indeed Salter did not deny its attractive charms. The Seiber certainly sounds more like a “major” statement - some readers may not even know that Matyas Seiber was a very highly regarded émigré musician in the 1950s and 1960s. Craggy, uncompromising but not awfully inviting but perhaps I am not really the person to judge this sort of “Collaboration” - I have an idea the word “crossover” didn’t exist then.
One thing I can say is that I wasn’t aware of any discrepancy of styles between the forces playing, which seems a fair tribute to Rignold’s ability to jazz up the LPO and coordinate it all (Saga XIP 7006, reviewed in Gramophone 4/1962. Can be heard on you-tube).
The LPO was again on hand, with the Italian pianist Sergio Fiorentino, for a performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto. I found a site where I can hear this in quite good sound, but it does not seem possible to download the file. It’s a performance different from all others I’ve heard, though in truth it’s not a work that I have enthused about - until now. One is struck at once that the drums at the beginning are not a loud, rhetorical gesture but set up a rhythmic groundswell that will carry the whole movement. Just at the beginning, Fiorentino seems to want to give the music the Rachmaninov treatment, but then he surely realizes that the conductor has a special insight. Rignold’s strict tempi are not strait-laced; rather, he knows how to swing the music against a regular rhythmic background. Climaxes are not cinematically overblown; even these maintain their swing. Once he has taken his measure of how things are, Fiorentino swoops and darts around the orchestral backing, using all his range of colour and spontaneous phrasing just as the violinist Hugo Rignold used to do around the rhythmic background of his jazz band. The bluesy second movement is wonderfully tender, it just goes on rocking all the way through. The finale is light and sparkling, as close as any to the truncated version that’s all we have of Gershwin’s own performance, and there’s no big Hollywood blaze at the end, it still keeps swinging.
In a way this performance may align Gershwin more with the English Jack Hylton style of which Rignold was such a fine exponent. At any rate it convinces as a jazz-rooted concerto, and a wonderful one. Fiorentino we know to be one of the pianistic greats, and that’s how it sounds. In this work, for once, it sounds mighty like there’s a great conductor on the rostrum, though one who doesn’t let little imprecisions worry him.
This record also had the 3 Preludes, played by Fiorentino on his own, while the orchestra played the RR Bennett suite from Porgy and Bess - I haven’t managed to find this anywhere. The whole package should be issued, and it could be preceded, on CD, by a group of Rignold’s jazz sides. They’d provide a key to the way the Piano Concerto is interpreted (Saga XID 5130, reviewed in EMG Monthly Letter, July 1962).
Rignold took up the appointment for which he is most remembered, that of Principal Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, in 1960. He remained until 1968. The CBSO’s immediate past had not been without problems, with the sudden early resignation of Andrzej Panufnik and the caretaker appointment in 1959, just for one year to tide things over, of the ageing Sir Adrian Boult, who had been the orchestra’s principal conductor back in the 1920s. Rignold is generally credited with restoring stability and improving discipline. His expertise as a violinist enabled him to draw a naturally singing, unforced response from the strings. He saw that the public got a basic diet of core repertoire - Beethoven’s 9th was an annual fixture - and at the same time introduced a fair number of new works such as Simpson’s 3rd Symphony (1963), Fricker’s 4th Symphony (1968), Musgrave’s Concerto for Orchestra (1968) and Wellesz’s 7th Symphony (1968). Rignold’s championing of Egon Wellesz was particularly notable. Although the 7th was the only symphony of which he and the CBSO actually gave the première, they promoted several of the others. Rignold’s 1967 season included a performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony which was a first both for him and for the orchestra, and which the “Musical Times” critic felt was the best thing he had done so far.
I began this article with my own generally positive recollections of Rignold and the CBSO. Unfortunately, apart from memories, there is only one disc by which we can remember his work in Birmingham: Bliss’s Music for Strings and Meditations on a theme of John Blow. The CBSO had visited the recording studios fairly regularly in the days of 78s, particularly under George Weldon, but EMI practically eliminated all provincial orchestras except the Hallé from its books in the 1950s. This was therefore the orchestra’s first LP though, fascinatingly, the memories of their former manager John Charles reveal that others were made but not passed for issue by Rignold. These performances have been amply discussed on MusicWeb International following their issue - at long last - on CD. John Quinn’s review tells us that the orchestra was transported to London for the sessions - apparently it worked out cheaper for Lyrita that way than recording them in Birmingham. John also mentions that Bliss himself attended the sessions and felt that the orchestra had played “Music for Strings” better than the Philharmonia in 1954, when he recorded it with them. I don’t know that recording, but I have listened to the 1937 version by the BBC Symphony Orchestra strings under the work’s original interpreter, Sir Adrian Boult. As the timings show, Rignold took a relatively steady view:
I II III Total Boult 1937 7:31 8:40 6:06 23:17 Rignold 1966 9:30 10:08 6:20 25:58
This may look like caution on Rignold’s part, but that’s not how it sounds. Boult, as was his wont in his earlier years, drives hard and doesn’t spare his players, who cope splendidly apart from the odd awkward corner. Being Boult, he also finds time to shape the more lyrical moments imaginatively without slackening.
With Rignold, we seem to be listening to a different piece. The more spacious approach opens up vistas scarcely present in Boult, but the difference is more essential even than that. Rignold was a string player himself, remember, and all his tempi, articulation and colouring - the exact dosing of the vibrato, for example - derive from an intimate knowledge of what is actually involved in playing the music. It’s like listening to an expanded string quartet. Boult admirer though I am, I have to say that in this case Rignold finds much more in the music. Boult returned to the piece in his last years but I haven’t heard this late traversal.
The “Meditations” were a Birmingham commission through the Feeney Trust, though before Rignold’s day - the première was under Rudolf Schwarz. Essentially a set of variations with a grand finale, we can admire Rignold’s precise realization of the colour and character of each meditation. Which brings me to the quality of the orchestra in Rignold’s day.
It was habitual, during Rattle’s reign, to say what wonders he had done to raise Frémaux’s ropey provincial band to an internationally acclaimed orchestra. I had a colleague from Birmingham in my university days (1971-5) and he told me what wonders Frémaux had done to raise dreadful old Rignold’s band to a fine orchestra. Certainly, the orchestra became a fully-fledged recording ensemble in Frémaux’s period. I suppose that, in Rignold’s day, the dark ages cited for comparison were those under Schwarz. Whatever, this single recording under Rignold, while it may represent a special effort, the top end of what they were able to do, does not reveal an orchestra inferior to that on any of the Frémaux recordings I’ve heard. It’s always been a classic among British music recordings and strongly suggests they could have made a few more such (Lyrita SRCS 33 reissued on CD as SRCD 254).
The Rachmaninov cycle with Ashkenazy, referred to above, suggests that Rignold’s career could have had a glorious apotheosis but it didn’t happen. I also remember turning on the radio, I suppose in the early 1970s, to hear Rignold conduct Schubert’s 4th Symphony with one of the BBC orchestras, perhaps the Welsh. The performance was so flat-footed that I switched it off. Maybe his health was failing - as I noted at the beginning, he looked rather older than he actually was. For whatever reason, he quietly faded from view after leaving Birmingham and died on 30th May 1976 at the hardly advanced age of 71.
Given that Rignold’s recordings range from good to very good, one wonders why there were so few. Does the revelation that he and the CBSO had in fact made other recordings, but which had not been passed for issue by the conductor, provide a clue? Was he “difficult” in the recording studio? Certainly, it’s all very well to fill the recording companies’ vaults with unissued recordings if your name is Carlos Kleiber, it’s a more risky thing if you’re Hugo Rignold. The recording companies prefer to book someone who delivers without too much fuss. Could such fastidiousness explain the weird Liverpool pairing of Delius and Tchaikovsky, maybe the only sides approved of several set down? Or the fact that we have only the Galop from “Jeux d’Enfants”? It would be interesting to hear from anyone who knows a bit more about this.
If Rignold had worked in continental Europe, no doubt there would be a goodly store of live recordings stashed away, if anyone thought them interesting. It’s a fair bet that the BBC preserved nothing of the performances it broadcast under Rignold a concert with the National Youth Orchestra was also televised. Private collectors hung onto his performances of Fricker, Wellesz et al. for as long as they had no other way of hearing the works. In recent years, though, much of this material has reached CD, so how many collectors have kept their worn-out tapes? Rignold’s profile outside the UK was not particularly high, but a tribute by the Dutch Etcetera company to the harpist Phia Berghout contained a performance of the Harp Concerto by Hans Henkemans in which Rignold conducted the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1961. Also seemingly extant in the Dutch radio archives is a performance of Graham Whettam’s Clarinet Concerto from 1965, with Gijs Karten as soloist. The spacing of these dates implies that Rignold was a regular visitor in those years. I wonder what else these archives hold?
In conclusion, I would like to return to the words of the Gramophone critic who, in 1936, rated Hugo Rignold the jazz violinist a greater artist than Venuti or Grappelli. Even if we suppose this an exaggeration - but I doubt if enough recorded material exists to settle the matter - the fact remains that a reputable critic was inspired to say it. Hugo Rignold the classical conductor was certainly a figure of sterling worth, but I daresay not even his wives - he was married three times - would have claimed he was a greater conductor than, just to stay with the home-grown breed, Beecham, Barbirolli or Boult. So was classical conducting his real “Fach”? I much enjoyed most of the records I’ve discussed above, as I did the Leas Cliff Hall concerts all those years ago, but it may be significant that the one time that I found myself at least toying with the word “great” was when he was conducting Gershwin.
Peter Joelson has provided information which at least partly fills in the picture of what Rignold did after leaving Birmingham:
“When I was a student in Cape Town in the late 1960s and very early 1970s, we were thoroughly delighted when Hugo Rignold arrived on the scene to revitalise the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra, taking over for half of the year for several years.
I knew a few players in the orchestra and they spoke very highly of his rehearsal methods, and the results shone. His first concert included Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, and among works performed for the first time was Mahler's Ninth.
I met him the once, a charming man accompanied by his daughter. I got the impression his health wasn't good, not least from the slow gait. After leaving South Africa at the end of 1973 I lost touch with the orchestra's progress, but was sad to read of his death in 1976; he did seem rather older than his years.
Following this up, I found an interesting extract from a book by James Gollin: Pianist: A Biography of Eugene Istomin (2010)
“The conductor of the concerts, Hugo Rignold, became a great friend. Rignold was in Cape Town for a year as the symphony’s guest conductor. With him was his family, including his very pretty young daughter, Jennifer. Rignold, Eugene said, was a first-rate conductor who had been a victim of British snobbism. A violinist, Rignold had spent the 1930s as a player and arranger in British dance bands, including his own. Like Eugene Ormandy ... Rignold had had a great trouble living down his pop past and gaining acceptance as a “serious” musician. He had gone to Egypt during the year for a year as conductor of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. This engagement had burnished his reputation, and after the war, Rignold had won stints at Covent Garden, Liverpool and The Hague. At length, he had settled down for nine years as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but was never offered a London orchestra. Eugene liked Rignold the musician and admired the Rignold lifestyle. “He was an excellent conductor. And like all these conductors, he drove an Aston Martin [sports car]. And he loved ‘gahrls’. ‘Gahrls, gahrls, gahrls’. But he had no intention of letting Jennifer run loose.”
I also found an internet discussion where Rignold is described as “a bit of an expert on good wine”. He is also remembered for some odd phrases during rehearsals such as “dig it out”, which were joked about by the players. The specific reference to his not being offered a London orchestra is interesting. It implies he felt he should have been. Was this something that rankled, something he was liable to bring up over a glass of wine?
I’ve tried to trace a Rignold appointment at The Hague, but without success. Can any Dutch reader help? I’m also puzzled by the idea that “all these conductors” drove Aston Martins. I’ve tried to imagine Sir Adrian Boult gadding about town in one, but the prospect was too mind-boggling.
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