Two Classical masterpieces from Sargent and the RPO
Surprisingly rare repertoire for this conductor in superb EMI stereo recordings, XR remastered
REVIEW Beethoven Eroica, original LP issue
I should never have guessed Sargent as the conductor of this had I not known beforehand. It is a civilised, polished reading, lacking some drama and intensity, and in these qualities it reminded of Kempe's "eighteenth-century" reading of last month. But Sargent is less extreme in this view, and the playing is fresh, the musical argument consistently gripping one as it should. The opening of the slow movement illustrates the performance's qualities--as well as its shortcomings. The speed is extremely slow, but where with a Toscanini the tension is frightening Sargent caresses the music, giving it a velvet quality. Rarely have I felt the aptness so much of Coleridge's famous remark about this being a funeral procession in deep purple. The Royal Philharmonic woodwind respond superbly.
The scherzo is on the slow side too, and the finale is as slow as the music can stand (not quite so slow as Kempe however). The work loses some stature and certainly intensity, but the merits I have noted shine consistently through, and anyone wanting a bargain Eroica in very warm and ample stereo should be delighted with it. Matacic provides a possible stereo alternative on Whitehall (PLPS129), a more vigorous, dramatic performance, but the recording is sour by comparison. I have yet to hear the mono version of the Sargent. Unfortunately his slow speed for the Funeral March entails a tum-over in the middle.
E.G., The Gramophone, November 1961
REVIEW Schubert Unfinished, original LP issue
"Pop Schubert at a pop price," I wrote when the mono version of this disc appeared. Hearing it in stereo I feel even more like adding that it would be good value at any price. Sargent's view of the first movement of the Unfinished is so very well integrated. I remarked of another conductor's recent record of the symphony that he made parts of it sound like Tchaikovsky. That is easy to do, but it is the sort of trap into which Sargent never falls. This first movement holds together most convincingly from start to finish. The playing throughout is excellent in the second movement, too.
Since the stereo sound is excellent, this record, with its admirable playing from the RPO, is well worth its modest price.
T.H., The Gramophone, March 1962, excerpt
Notes on the recordings:
For a conductor of Sir Malcolm Sargent's stature, and for one who was such a prolific recording artist, it seems odd that his recorded output includes so few of the "warhorses" of the mainstream symphonic repertoire. Sargent's studio work, on the whole, tended to concentrate on choral music (Beecham referred to him as "the greatest choirmaster we have ever produced"), concertos ("he seems to sense what the pianist wants of the music even before he begins to play it" - Cyril Smith), and English music.
Thus the two recordings here represent, surprisingly, rare moments in his studio career. They were recorded seven months apart in 1960 and 1961, a time when the conductor was also engaged in trying to preserve the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the wake in March 1961 of the death of Sir Thomas Beecham.
Despite their issue on the budget HMV Concert Classics label, they were of course well-recorded by EMI, and this new XR remasterings of transfers made for us by Edward Johnson has worked to clear out some of the boxiness of the original, adding clarity and focus as well as overall body to the orchestral sound. Pitch analysis suggests the orchestra tuned to A443 for both recordings - this has been retained for this release.
Sir Malcolm Sargent
Biographical notes from Wikipedia
Sir Harold Malcolm Watts Sargent (29 April 1895 – 3 October 1967) was an English conductor, organist and composer widely regarded as Britain's leading conductor of choral works. The musical ensembles with which he was associated included the Ballets Russes, the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Royal Choral Society, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and the London Philharmonic, Hallé, Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Symphony and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. Sargent was held in high esteem by choirs and instrumental soloists, but because of his high standards and a statement that he made in a 1936 interview disputing musicians' rights to tenure, his relationship with orchestral players was often uneasy. Despite this, he was co-founder of the London Philharmonic, was the first conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic as a full-time ensemble, and played an important part in saving the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from disbandment in the 1960s.
As chief conductor of London's internationally famous summer music festival the Proms from 1948 to 1967, Sargent was one of the best-known English conductors. When he took over the Proms from their founder, Sir Henry Wood, he and two assistants conducted the two-month season between them. By the time he died, he was assisted by a large international roster of guest conductors.
At the outbreak of World War II, Sargent turned down an offer of a major musical directorship in Australia and returned to the UK to bring music to as many people as possible as his contribution to national morale. His fame extended beyond the concert hall: to the British public, he was a familiar broadcaster in BBC radio talk shows, and generations of Gilbert and Sullivan devotees have known his recordings of the most popular Savoy Operas. He toured widely throughout the world and was noted for his skill as a conductor, his championship of British composers, and his debonair appearance, which won him the nickname "Flash Harry."
Sargent was born in Bath Villas, Ashford, in Kent, England, to a working-class family. His father, Henry Sargent, was a coal merchant, amateur musician and part-time church organist; his mother, Agnes, née Hall, was the matron of a local school. Sargent was brought up in Stamford, Lincolnshire, where he joined the choir at Peterborough Cathedral, studied the organ and won a scholarship to Stamford School. At the age of 14, he accompanied rehearsals for amateur productions of The Gondoliers and The Yeomen of the Guard at Stamford. At age 16, he earned his diploma as Associate of the Royal College of Organists, and at 18, he was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Music by the University of Durham.
Sargent worked first as an organist at St. Mary's Church, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, from 1914 to 1924, except for eight months in 1918 when he served as a private in the Durham Light Infantry during World War I. Sargent was chosen for the organist post over more than 150 other applicants. At the same time, he worked on many musical projects in Leicester, Melton Mowbray and Stamford, where he not only conducted but also produced the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and others for amateur societies. The Prince of Wales and his entourage often hunted in Leicestershire and watched the annual Gilbert and Sullivan productions there together with the Duke of York and other members of the Royal Family. At the age of 24, Sargent became England's youngest Doctor of Music, with a degree from Durham.
Sargent's break came when Sir Henry Wood visited De Montfort Hall, Leicester, early in 1921 with the Queen's Hall orchestra. As it was customary to commission a piece from a local composer, Wood commissioned Sargent to write a piece entitled Impression on a Windy Day. Sargent completed the work too late for Wood to have enough time to learn it, and so Wood called on Sargent to conduct the first performance himself. Wood recognised not only the worth of the piece but also Sargent's talent as a conductor and gave him the chance to make his debut conducting the work at Wood's annual season of promenade concerts, generally known as the Proms, in the Queen's Hall on 11 October of the same year.
Sargent as composer attracted favourable notice in a Prom season when other composer-conductors included Gustav Holst with his Planets suite, and the next year, Wood included a nocturne and scherzo by Sargent in the Proms programme, also conducted by the composer. Sargent was invited to conduct the Impression again in the 1923 season, but it was as a conductor that he made the greater impact. On the advice of Wood, among others, he soon abandoned composition in favour of conducting. He founded the amateur Leicester Symphony Orchestra in 1922, which he continued to conduct until 1939. Under Sargent, the orchestra's prestige grew until it was able to obtain such top-flight soloists as Alfred Cortot, Artur Schnabel, Solomon, Guilhermina Suggia and Benno Moiseiwitsch. Moiseiwitsch gave Sargent piano lessons without charge, judging him talented enough to make a successful career as a concert pianist. At the instigation of Wood and Adrian Boult, however, Sargent became a lecturer at theRoyal College of Music in London in 1923.
In the 1920s, Sargent became one of the best-known English conductors. For the British National Opera Company, he conducted Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on tour in 1925, and for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, he conducted London seasons at the Prince's Theatre in 1926 and the newly rebuilt Savoy Theatre in 1929–30. Sargent was criticised by The Times's review of 20 September 1926 for adding "gags" to the Gilbert and Sullivan scores, although it praised the crispness of the ensemble, the "musicalness" of the performance and the beauty of the overture. Rupert D'Oyly Carte wrote to the paper stating that, in fact, Sargent had worked from Arthur Sullivan's manuscript scores and had merely brought out the "details of the orchestration" exactly as Sullivan had written them. Some of the principal cast members and the stage director, J. M. Gordon, objected to Sargent's fast tempi, at least at first. The D'Oyly Carte seasons brought Sargent's name to a wider public with an early BBC radio relay ofThe Mikado in 1926 heard by up to eight million people. The Evening Standard noted that this was "probably the largest audience that has ever heard anything at one time in the history of the world." In 1927, Sergei Diaghilev engaged Sargent to conduct for the Ballets Russes, sharing the conducting duties with Igor Stravinsky and Sir Thomas Beecham. Sargent also conducted for the final Ballets Russes season in 1928. In 1928 he became conductor of the Royal Choral Society, and he retained this post for four decades until his death. The society was famous in the 1920s and 1930s for staged performances of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's The Song of Hiawatha at theRoyal Albert Hall, a work with which Sargent's name soon became synonymous.
Elizabeth Courtauld, wife of the industrialist Samuel Courtauld, promoted a popular series of subscription concerts beginning in 1929 and on Schnabel's advice engaged Sargent as chief conductor, with guest conductors as eminent as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and Stravinsky. The Courtauld-Sargent concerts, as they became known, were aimed at people who had not previously attended concerts. They attracted large audiences bringing Sargent's name before another section of the public. In addition to the core repertory, Sargent introduced new works by Arthur Bliss, Arthur Honegger, Zoltán Kodály, Bohuslav Martinů, Sergei Prokofiev, Karol Szymanowski and William Walton, among others. At first, the plan was to engage the London Symphony Orchestra for these concerts, but the orchestra, a self-governing co-operative, refused to replace key players whom Sargent considered sub-standard. As a result, in conjunction with Beecham, Sargent set about establishing a new orchestra, the London Philharmonic.
In these years Sargent tackled a wide range of repertoire, recording much of it, but he was particularly noted for performances of choral pieces. He promoted British music, as he would throughout his career, conducting Handel's Messiah performed with large choruses and orchestras; and the premières of At the Boar's Head (1925) by Gustav Holst;Hugh the Drover (1924) and Sir John in Love (1929) by Ralph Vaughan Williams; and Walton's oratorio Belshazzar's Feast (at the Leeds Triennial Festival of 1931). To popularise classical music, Sargent conducted many concerts for young people including the Robert Mayer Concerts for Children from 1924 to 1939.
In October 1932, Sargent suffered a near-fatal attack of tuberculosis. For almost two years he was unable to work, and it was only later in the 1930s that he returned to the concert scene. In 1936, he conducted his first opera at Covent Garden, Gustave Charpentier's Louise. He did not return to the Royal Opera House to conduct opera again until 1954, with Walton's Troilus and Cressida, although he did conduct the incidental music for a dramatisation of The Pilgrim's Progress given at the Royal Opera House in 1948.
As an orchestra conductor, the diligent Sargent had already been known as a hard taskmaster. According to The Independent, he brought professionalism to orchestras by shaking them free of dead wood, clearing out talented dilettantes and pushing the survivors to perform at their best through relentless rehearsal. After giving a Daily Telegraph interview in 1936 in which he said that an orchestral musician did not deserve a "job for life" and should "give of his lifeblood with every bar he plays," Sargent lost much favour with musicians. They were particularly annoyed because of their support of him during his long illness, and Sargent thereafter faced frequent hostility from British orchestras.
Being immensely popular in Australia with players as well as the public, Sargent made three lengthy tours of Australia and New Zealand in 1936, 1938 and 1939. He was on the verge of accepting a permanent appointment with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation when, at the outbreak of World War II, he felt it his duty to return to his country, resisting strong pressure from the Australian media for him to stay. During the war, Sargent directed the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester (1939–42) and theLiverpool Philharmonic (1942–48) and became a popular BBC Home Service radio broadcaster. He helped boost public morale during the war by extensive concert tours around the country conducting for nominal fees. On one famous occasion, an air raid interrupted a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Sargent stopped the orchestra, calmed the audience by saying they were safer inside the hall than fleeing outside, and resumed conducting. He later said that no orchestra had ever played so well and that no audience in his experience had ever listened so intently. In May 1941 Sargent conducted the last performance held in the Queen's Hall. Following an afternoon performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, the hall was destroyed during a night-time incendiary raid.
In 1945, Arturo Toscanini invited Sargent to conduct the NBC Symphony Orchestra. In four concerts Sargent chose to present all English music, with the exception of Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 1 and Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 7. Two concertos, Walton's Viola Concerto with William Primrose, and Elgar's Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin, were programmed as part of these concerts. Menuhin judged Sargent's conducting of the latter "the next best to Elgar in this work."
Sargent was knighted for his services to music in 1947 and performed in numerous English-speaking countries during the post-war years. He continued to promote British composers, conducting the premières of Walton's opera, Troilus and Cressida (1954), and Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 9 (1958).
Sargent was chief conductor of the Proms from 1948 until his death in 1967 and of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1950 to 1957, succeeding Sir Adrian Boult. One author has written that "Sargent sometimes ruffled the orchestra in a way that Boult had never done. Indeed there were many people inside the BBC who profoundly regretted Boult's departure." The same author contended that Sargent was the target of criticism from the BBC's own Music Department for "not devoting enough time to the orchestra."Norman Lebrecht goes so far as to claim that Sargent "almost wrecked" the BBC orchestra. Although the orchestra players bridled at some of Sargent's initiatives, there has been ample praise for Sargent's work with the orchestra. His biographer Reid contended, "Sargent's liveliness and drive soon gave BBC playing a gloss and briskness which had not been conspicuous before." Another biographer, Aldous, wrote, "Everywhere Sargent and the orchestra performed there were ovations, laurel wreaths and terrific reviews." The orchestra's reputation both in Britain and internationally grew during Sargent's tenure. The conductor had "great moments of triumph ... both at festivals overseas and during the Proms." In the 1950s and 1960s Sargent made many recordings with the BBC Symphony, as well as other ensembles, as described below. In this period, also, he conducted the concerts that opened the Royal Festival Hall in 1951 and returned to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for the summer 1951 "Festival of Britain" season at the Savoy Theatre and the winter 1961–62 and 1963–64 seasons at the Savoy. In August 1956 the BBC announced that Sargent would be replaced as Chief Conductor of the BBC orchestra by Rudolf Schwarz. Sargent was given the title of "Chief Guest Conductor" and he remained Conductor-in-Chief of the Proms.
As chief conductor of the Proms, Sargent gained his widest fame, making the "Last Night" into a high-ratings broadcast celebration aimed at ordinary audiences, a popular, theatrical flag-waving extravaganza presided over by himself. He was noted for his witty addresses in which he good-naturedly chided the noisy promenaders. In his programmes for these concerts he often conducted choral music and music by British composers, but his range was broad: the BBC's official history of the Proms lists selected programmes from this period showing Sargent conducting works by Bach, Sibelius, Dvořák, Berlioz, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Richard Strauss and Kodály in three successive programmes. During his chief conductorship, prestigious foreign conductors and orchestras began to perform regularly at the Proms. In his first season in charge, Sargent and two assistant conductors conducted all the concerts among them; by 1966, there were Sargent and 25 other conductors. Those making their Prom debuts in the Sargent years included Carlo Maria Giulini, Georg Solti, Leopold Stokowski, Rudolf Kempe, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink. The charity founded in Sargent's name continues to hold a special 'Promenade Concert' each year shortly after the main season ends.
Sargent made two tours of South America. In 1950 he conducted in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro and Santiago. His programmes included Vaughan Williams'sLondon and 6th Symphonies; Haydn's Symphony No. 88, Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, Mozart's Jupiter symphony, Schubert's 5th, Brahms's 2nd and 4th, Sibelius's 5th, Elgar's Serenade for Strings, Britten's Purcell Variations, Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Walton's Viola Concerto and Dvořák's Cello Concerto with Pierre Fournier. The President of Uruguay addressed him thus: "We Uruguayans are fond of all English people, Sir Malcolm, but especially fond of you." In 1952 Sargent conducted in all the above-mentioned cities and also in Lima. Half his repertory on that tour consisted of British music and included Delius, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton, and Handel.
When the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was in danger of extinction after Beecham's death in 1961, Sargent played a major part in saving the orchestra, doing much to win back the good opinion of orchestral players that he had lost because of his 1936 interview. In the 1960s, Sargent toured Russia, the United States, Canada, Turkey, Israel, India, the Far East and Australia. By the mid-1960s, however, his health began to deteriorate.
Sargent underwent surgery in July 1967 for pancreatic cancer but made a valedictory appearance at the end of the last night of the Proms in September that year, handing over the baton to his successor, Colin Davis. He died two weeks later, at the age of 72. He was buried in Stamford cemetery alongside members of his family.
Toscanini, Beecham and many others regarded Sargent as the finest choral conductor in the world. Even orchestral musicians gave him credit: the principal violist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra wrote of him, "He is able to instil into the singers a life and efficiency they never dreamed of. You have only to see the eyes of a choral society screwing into him like hundreds of gimlets to understand what he means to them." However, another of Sargent's colleagues, Sir Adrian Boult, said of him, "[H]e was a great all-rounder but never developed his potentialities, which were enormous, simply because he didn't think hard enough about music – he never troubled to improve on a successful interpretation. He was too interested in other things, and not single-minded enough about music." Although orchestral players resented Sargent for much of his career after the 1936 interview, instrumental soloists generally liked working with him. The cellist Pierre Fournier called him a "guardian angel" and compared him favourably with George Szell and Herbert von Karajan. Artur Schnabel, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin thought similarly highly of him. Cyril Smith wrote in his autobiography, "...he seems to sense what the pianist wants of the music even before he begins to play it.... He has an incredible speed of mind, and it has always been a great joy, as well as a rare professional experience, to work with him." For this reason, among others, Sargent was continually in demand as a conductor for concertos.
The Times obituary said Sargent "was of all British conductors in his day the most widely esteemed by the lay public... a fluent, attractive pianist, a brilliant score-reader, a skilful and effective arranger and orchestrator... as a conductor his stick technique was regarded by many as the most accomplished and reliable in the world.... [H]is taste... was moulded by the Victorian cathedral tradition into which he was born." It commented that, in his later years, his interpretations of the standard classical and romantic repertoire were "prepared... down to the last detail" but sometimes "unexuberant", though his performances of "the music composed within his lifetime... remained lucid and continually compelling." The flute player Gerald Jackson wrote, "I feel that [Walton] conducts his own music as well as anyone else, with the possible exception of Sargent, who of course introduced and always makes a big thing of Belshazzar's Feast."
The composers whose works Sargent regularly conducted included, from the eighteenth century, J. S. Bach, Handel, Gluck, Mozart and Haydn; and from the nineteenth century, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Sullivan and Dvořák. From the twentieth century, British composers in his repertoire included Bliss, Britten, Delius, Elgar (a favourite, especially Elgar's oratorios The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom and symphonies),Holst, Tippett, Vaughan Williams and Walton. With the exception of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, Sargent avoided the works of the Second Viennese School but programmed works by Bartók, Dohnányi, Hindemith, Honegger, Kodály, Martinů, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and Szymanowski.
In 1923, Sargent married Eileen Laura Harding Horne, daughter of Frederic Horne of Drinkstone, Suffolk. Sargent's biographers differ on her background. Aldous states that she was a maid in domestic service, whereas Reid notes that she was a keen rider, with many friends in hunting circles, and that her uncle (who officiated at her wedding to Sargent) was rector of Drinkwater, Suffolk. According to Aldous, it was believed locally that Sargent had to marry Horne, having made her pregnant. By 1926, the couple had two children, a daughter Pamela who was to die of polio in 1944, and a son Peter. Sargent was much affected by his daughter's death, and his recording of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius in 1945 was an expression of his grief.
Sargent's marriage was unhappy and ended in divorce in 1946. Before, during and after his marriage, Sargent was a continual womaniser, a fact that he did not deny. His liaisons with powerful women began early, in Stamford, when he was still conducting the Gilbert and Sullivan shows attended by the London gentry who came to join theMelton Mowbray hunt. Among his affairs were long-standing ones with Diana Bowes-Lyon, Princess Marina and Edwina Mountbatten. More casual encounters are typified by the young woman who said, "Promise me that whatever happens I shan't have to go home alone in a taxi with Malcolm Sargent."
Away from music, Sargent was elected a member of The Literary Society, a dining club founded in 1807 by William Wordsworth and others. He was also a member of theBeefsteak Club, for which his proposer was Sir Edward Elgar, the Garrick, and the long-established and aristocratic White's and Pratt's clubs. His public service appointments included the joint presidency of the London Union of Youth Clubs, and the presidency of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Sargent's moral character attracted comment throughout his life. Early on, he developed a taste for luxury: Adrian Boult commented on his travelling to college by taxi, but Sargent rejoined, "All the more room for you, Adrian, on the bus." Despite Sargent's vanities and rivalries, however, he had many friends. Sir Thomas Armstrong in a 1994 broadcast interview stressed that Sargent "had many good generous virtues; he was kind to many people, and I loved him...." Nevertheless, even friends such as Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, Secretary of the Literary Society, considered him a 'bounder', and the composer-suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth called him a 'cad'. Yet despite hisphilandering and ambition, Sargent was a deeply religious man all his life and was comforted on his deathbed by visits from the Anglican Archbishop of York, Donald Cogganand the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Heenan. He also received calls from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, and had a reconciliation with his son, Peter, from whom he had been estranged for a year.
A number of purported explanations have been advanced for Sargent's nickname, "Flash Harry". Reid opines that it "was first in circulation among orchestral players before the war and that they used it in no spirit of adulation." It may have arisen from his impeccable and stylish appearance – he always wore a red or white carnation in his buttonhole (the carnation is now the symbol of the school named for him). This was perhaps reinforced by his brisk tempi early in his career, and by a story about his racing from one recording session to another. Another explanation, that he was named after cartoonist Ronald Searle's St. Trinian's character "Flash Harry", is certainly wrong, since Sargent's nickname was current long before the first appearance of the St. Trinian's character in 1954. Sargent's devoted fans, the Promenaders, used the nickname in an approving sense, and shortened it to "Flash", though Sargent was not especially keen on the soubriquet, even thus modified.
Beecham and Sargent were allies from the early days of the London Philharmonic to Beecham's final months when they were planning joint concerts. They even happened to share the same birthday. When Sargent was incapacitated by tuberculosis in 1933, Beecham conducted a performance of Messiah at the Albert Hall to raise money to support his younger colleague. Sargent loved Beecham's company, and took in good part his quips, such as his reference to the rising conductor Herbert von Karajan, as "a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent" and, on learning that Sargent's car was caught in rifle fire in Palestine, "I had no idea the Arabs were so musical." However, Beecham declared that Sargent "is the greatest choirmaster we have ever produced... he makes the buggers sing like blazes." And on another occasion he said that Sargent was "the most expert of all our conductors – myself excepted of course."
In addition to his own Doctorate from Durham, Sargent was awarded honorary degrees by the Universities of Oxford and Liverpool and by the
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