BBC Legends – Sir Malcolm Sargent – Sibelius & Vaughan Williams

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Sibelius
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.4 in F minor

BBC Symphony OrchestraSir Malcolm Sargent

Recorded in the Royal Albert Hall, London – 16 August 1963 (Vaughan Williams) & 2 September 1965


Reviewed by: Mike Langhorne

Reviewed: May 2008
CD No: BBC Legends
BBCL 4237-2
Duration: 68 minutes

 

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This is a useful issue in that it restores the Vaughan Williams to the catalogue (it was previously available on BBC Radio Classics, differently coupled) and adds the Sibelius to Malcolm Sargent’s discography. Both are performances from the BBC Proms in the early 1960s, and are in serviceable stereo recordings. The Sibelius has a noisier audience and though recorded later has rather less impact than does the Vaughan Williams.

Sargent recorded none of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies commercially but he played most of them regularly at the Proms during his tenure as Chief Conductor. This recording from 1963 probably represents his last thoughts on the Fourth and as such is an important document. It was not Sargent’s way to make the most of dramatic openings or to supercharge his readings with sensationalism. This is a considered reading and provides the listener with a surefooted representation of the score. Others – notably the composer himself, Bernstein and Stokowski – tear into the opening bars with more savagery and all are exciting, but Sargent maintains a musicality throughout the first movement that perhaps conveys a less brutal vision but is nonetheless perfectly valid. The slow movement – that strange Holstian processional treading its way to an anguished climax and then subsiding into nothingness is beautifully done. The scherzo tends to the dapper rather than the rumbustious – no doubt this most urbane and suave of conductors found it hard to release the true nature of this movement – though as soon as the mood changes in the eerie transition to the finale Sargent is again in his element, bringing the symphony home with all the impact and drama that this most trenchant of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies demands.

Sargent was a noted Sibelian. He recorded three of Sibelius’s seven symphonies for EMI and was slated to complete the cycle but the project was cancelled after Sibelius’s death. He was also honoured with the Knight Commander of the White Rose of Finland for his services to Sibelius’s music. This performance of the Fourth is of potential interest. Unfortunately it is a bit of a disappointment and cannot join with Anthony Collins and the LSO or Karajan’s Deutsche Grammophon recording made in the same month as this Sargent concert took place. Collins finds more drama and Karajan more colour and depth. Sargent does not explore sufficiently the strange soundworld that this most enigmatic of Sibelius’s symphonies inhabits. In the scherzo the string and woodwind coloration is not fully exploited and the slow movement climax does not have the sheer intellectual power of Karajan.

Early pressings of this release have faulty booklets (a large slice of the text is missing). BBC Legends will replace such with now-corrected versions free of charge (phone and e-mail details below).

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