Before I begin my review, I must mention some of the context surrounding this release. From 1952 until 1996 Richard Itter (1928-2014), the founder of Lyrita, recorded BBC transmissions using professional state-of-the-art disc and tape recorders. As time went on, he amassed a valuable archive, which he meticulously and dutifully documented. This included Proms, premieres, operas, symphonies and chamber music and eventually totalled around 1500 items. In 2014, the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust began to transfer the best and rarest items, focusing on British music, but also including international repertoire. This release is, I hope, one of many paying tribute to musicians who contributed significantly to British musical life. It features orchestral music conducted by the Ukrainian conductor Nikolai Malko and broadcast by the BBC between 1957 and 1960.
Nicolai Malko was born in the Ukraine in 1883. He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and his teachers included such illustrious names as Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Lyadov. Upon graduation in 1909 he travelled to Munich to study conducting with Felix Mottl. Later in 1925, after spending some time teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, he took on a professorship at the Leningrad Conservatory. Parallel to this he fulfilled a conducting post with the Leningrad Philharmonic. That same year he conducted the world premiere of Shostakovich’s First Symphony, a later broadcast performance of which is included here. Shostakovich was his pupil, and he dedicated his Second Symphony to his teacher, who premiered it in 1927. In 1928 Yevgeny Mravinsky, another of his pupils, succeeded him in his Leningrad post. 1929 was a pivotal year – he was invited to the West and, once there, didn’t return to Russia for thirty years. At various times he lived in Vienna, Prague and Copenhagen, carrying out conducting engagements and helping found the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. In 1940, at the beginning of World War 11, he moved to the States. He had sounded out Adrian Boult about the possibility of coming to live in Britain, but was discouraged by Boult’s warning that there was not much work offered to foreigners. The UK eventually did beckon in 1954 with the offer of principal conductor of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. Around this time he made some recordings with several British orchestras, and resumed engagements with the BBC. He had done work for the Corporation since 1929, but the war had scuppered this. He also made some forays into early TV. In 1956 it was off to Australia, where he became chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, following the departure of Sir Eugene Goossens. He died there in 1961.
Malko’s repertoire was strongly Russian biased, but he did extend it to the native composers of the countries he was in at the time. In his dealings with the BBC he could be very adventurous, and featured in his programmes such names as Peter Racine Fricker, Kara Karayev, Alberto Ginastero and the Welsh composer Daniel Jones.
During the summer months, Tchaikovsky liked to seek refuge in the Ukraine with his sister’s family, the Davydovs. Known as ‘Little Russia’, Ukraine held significance for Malko, being his birthplace. From early on he included the Symphony No.2 ‘Little Russian’ in his repertoire, and there’s a previous BBC broadcast of it dating from February 1948. The performance we have here, from January 1957, is his only extant recording of the work, and makes a further addition to his Tchaikovsky symphonic discography of No. 4 (HMV) and No. 6 (RCA). In the first movement he conjures up a Russian chill and melancholy, the horn solo beautifully rendered. Eventually the mood becomes more joyous and jubilant and the performance catches fire. At the end, he expertly points up the woodwind, and the movement ends as it began. The Andantino marziale moves along with a jaunty swagger. However, it is in the finale that Malko truly shows his mettle, underlining the Russian nationalistic element. There’s a notable freshness, spontaneity and energetic feel to the performance, and it certainly packs a punch.
As already mentioned, Malko conducted the world premiere of Shostakovich’s First Symphony. He held the composer in high regard, and in his book ‘A Certain Art’ he dedicated five chapters to him. The work was the composer’s graduation piece, and it displays some deft handling of orchestration. Malko has a clear grasp of its structure and direction. There’s a lightness in his approach to the first movement, where he points up the crystalline texture of the scoring. In the Lento there is more gravitas, weight and intensity. In the finale, I was impressed by the bold contrasts.
The conductor made commercial recordings of only two of Haydn’s symphonies - 100 (HMV) and 92 (RCA), though he occasionally programmed them in his concerts. I have never heard any of his other Haydn performances, but this one disappoints. To me, it feels rather overblown and po-faced, and lacks the affability I associate with this music. Whatever the shortcomings I found here, the Bruckner Symphony No. 7 more than compensates. Felix Mottl, Malko’s conducting teacher in Munich, was regarded as an eminent Brucknerian and Wagnerian. Judging by this performance, some of this obviously rubbed off onto his student. This is a captivating and sumptuous performance, informed by nobility and stature. Throughout, Malko is probing and allows the lengthy narrative to unfold naturally, never losing grip of its structure. The slow movement has spaciousness, grandeur and dignity. The big tune has dignity and nobility. The well-managed Scherzo precedes a finale which brings the symphony to a close with a sense of fulfillment and inevitability. This must be one of the finest performances of the Symphony I have ever heard.
I’m pleased that Rimsky-Korsakov is included in this compilation. As one of Malko’s teachers he gets two chapters in ‘A Certain Art’. The Symphonic Suite ‘Antar’ is a treat. The conductor inspires his players to give an impassioned performance, contrasting both drama and lyricism. Malko’s reading is delightfully evocative, exotically painted with a strong Russian flavour. The Overture ‘The Tsar’s Bride’ and Mussorgsky’s ‘Khovanschina’ Prelude provide desirable and satisfying complements.
Kodály’s ‘The Spinning Room’ is a work I’ve never heard of before. It’s one of the composer’s three theatre pieces. Dating from 1924, it underwent something of an evolution into its present form. The score is peppered with Transylvanian folksong. The BBC broadcast we have here was actually the second. The composer conducted it for the corporation in May 1933. It has never achieved the popularity of Háry János, and Rob Barnett describes it as something of a ‘wallflower’ in the composer’s oeuvre. This performance, sung in English, took place in the Royal Festival Hall, London and was broadcast by the BBC on 3 February 1960. An imaginatively scored work, it has a wealth of memorable melodies.
The soloists are first rate, and all concerned deliver a compelling
performance. The recording is in remarkably good sound, with Malko proving himself a worthy advocate of this rarely performed opus.
Considering the age and provenance of these recordings, the audio quality is more than acceptable. The excellent annotations, which provide biography, background and context are supplied by Rob Barnett, and run to thirty-eight pages, including a full English text of Kodály’s ‘The Spinning Room’. If that weren’t enough, the text is sprinkled with beautifully produced black and white photographs.
I come away from this 4 CD set in the firm belief that Nikolai Malko is a conductor well worth getting to know.
CD 1 [66.08] Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.2 ‘Little Russian’ [33.56]
BBC broadcast, 13 January 1957 Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Symphony No.1 in F minor Op.10 [32.12]
BBC broadcast, 5 May 1957
CD 2 [66.07] Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809) Symphony No.83 ‘La poule’ [20.43]
BBC broadcast, 31 January 1960 Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Prelude, Khovanschina [5.27]
BBC broadcast, January 1957 Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Overture, The Tsar’s Bride [6.37]
London Symphony Orchestra
BBC broadcast, 26 March 1956
Symphonic Suite ‘Antar’ [33.20]
BBC broadcast, 5 May 1957
CD 3 [65.14] Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No.7 in E major [65.14]
BBC broadcast, 30 January 1960
CD 4 [70.00] Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Székelyfonó ‘The Spinning Room’ [70.00]
BBC broadcast, 3 February 1960
Elizabeth Simon - girl (soprano)
Norma Proctor - housewife (contralto)
Kathleen Joyce - neighbour (contralto)
Duncan Robertson - youth (tenor)
Denis Dowling - mummer/ flea (baritone)
Owen Brannigan - lover (bass)
BBC Chorus/Leslie Woodgate