Nicolai Malko & The BBC Symphony Orchestra, 1957-1960 = Works of TCHAKOVSKY, SHOSTAKOVICH, MUSSORGSKY, RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, BRUCKNER, HAYDN & KODALY – Lyrita (4 CDs)

It’s about time we had Nicolai Malko for this music, so all credit to the BBC and Lyrita!

Nicolai Malko & The BBC Symphony Orchestra, 1957-1960 = TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 17 “Little Russian”; SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1 in f minor, Op. 10; HAYDN: Symphony No. 83 in g minor “La poule”; MUSSORGSKY: Prelude to Khovantschina; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Overture to The Tsar’s Bride; Symphony No. 2 in f-sharp minor, Op. 9 “Antar”; BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E Major; KODALY: “The Spinning Room” – BBC Sym. Orch./ London Sym. Orch. (The Tsar’s Bride)/ Nicolai Malko – Lyrita REAM 2120 (4 CDs), 66:15, 66:21, 65:14, 70:00 (11/6/15) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

The Lyrita label (1952) as a whole emerged from founder Richard Itter’s penchant for taping BBC transmissions and archiving them. In 2014, the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust obtained permissions to release selective performances to the public, and this current set devoted to Russian conductor Nicolai Malko (1883-1961) comes as a direct result Itter’s conscientious preservation of these historic performances. Conductor Malko maintained a working relationship with the BBC from 1929 until his passing in 1963.

So far as Malko’s commitment to Russian music is concerned, the 1957-1958 season bears considerable fruit for these broadcast transfers, especially for Disc 1, which opens with a deeply thoughtful, etched performance (13 January 1957) of Tchaikovsky’s 1872 Little Russian Symphony, a work I first heard on recording by another famed British artist with varies ties to Malko, Sir Eugene Goossens (with the Cincinnati Symphony). While no list of the BBC Symphony personnel accompanies the extensive booklet, we can well appreciate the contributions made by the French horn and bassoon players. The power of the c minor first movement, often in eminent contrast to the lyrical episodes, resonates with a dire combustion – based on folk melody, “Down by Mother Volga” – I had not heard so much from Goossens, Giulini, Beecham, and Mitropoulos. The Ukrainian folk tune influence manifests itself in the Andante marziale second movement, where Tchaikovsky rescued melodies from his opera Udine and spliced them to “Spin, O My Spinner” from the Ukraine. Malko relishes the pert syncopations of the Scherzo, a rather playful account that cavorts and skips with fleet string energy. In duple rhythm, the Trio section assumes a more martial, semi-janissary feeling; then, Tchaikovsky combines the outer triple time against the Trio meter for some refined (German) polyphony. The “German” trait carries into the Finale, in which any reference to the Beethoven Fifth seems obvious. The folk tune “The Crane” receives learned treatment in the course of the musical evolution, from an earthy, national gopak to a bearer of the sacred flame in C Major.

But the price of admission becomes immediately justified with Malko’s second offering on this disc: his 5 May 1957 performance of the Shostakovich First Symphony, which he premiered for the world 12 May 1926 with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Logically, the EMI inscription should have fallen to Malko, but the record producers gave that honor to Efrem Kurtz. Malko deftly presents the work’s essential character: the combination of wit – the opening bassoon riff – and romantic rhetoric, and superb sense of diverse orchestral colors. The Allegretto section suffers no rush nor false inflation, with a smooth segue via flute (later clarinet) and low strings into the tripping figures that announce the martial Allegro non troppo. The pizzicato strings seem to usher in Sibelius’ Valse triste, but instead a sarcastic, tender parody emerges. What will later prove typical of the composer’s style, the line between drama and bombast breaks down. The Scherzo (Allegro – meno mosso) proves to be an etude in orchestral scoring and virtuoso technique, including the color of the snare, triangle, and piano; the last, Shostakovich’s chosen instrument.

The young composer – Shostakovich was eighteen when he wrote this piece – opens his dark, lyrical Lento with an oboe solo that leads the low strings and brass for some deeply heartfelt music, rife with forecasts of militarism. The sweet violin solo comes to us courtesy of leader Thomas Pestfield. It’s about time we had Nicolai Malko for this music! Shostakovich, similar to Tchaikovsky, decides to use his final movement as a showcase for compositional dexterity, a balance of academicism and spectacular, virtuoso effects. Malko unleashes his players for the audacious mix, which contains low-register hints of the first movement, now spliced to abrupt shifts of tempo and texture, some of which can be nostalgically delicate in the midst of a color vortex that includes the piano and a tympani solo.

Disc 2 opens with Malko’s reading of “The Hen” Symphony No. 83 of Haydn (rec. 31 January 1960), an immediate supplement to the Symphonies No. 92 and No. 100 he inscribed commercially – although the No. 100 has not returned to the CD format. Malko urges more of the sturm und drang aspects of this g minor opus than many of his conductor contemporaries. Subsequently, the entire affect remains almost-too-serious, to cite Robert Schumann. The remainder of the disc, however, devoted to Russian music, fares more idiomatically: the Prelude to Khovantschina (January 1957) enjoys a lithe sensuality we might easily ascribe to a Stokowski performance. The oboe, French horn, strings, and tympani combine to create a panoramic effect, making us wish for more Mussorgsky from Malko’s baton. The two Rimsky-Korsakov compositions move in determined, lyric fashion. First, Malko leads the Overture to the Tsar’s Bride (5 May 1957), a piece rife with processional brass work juxtaposed against sweetly arched strings. The power of expression, again, reminds of what Albert Coates achieved in this music. From 5 May 1957 Malko directs the BBC in the Antar Symphony, a kind of pre-Islamic, historical allegory set to music by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1868, which he revised in 1903. Each movement adapts an idée fixe motif, a la Berlioz, that becomes a commentary on the diverse powers of love, ambition, and fate. The performance proves to be sheer magic, crisp and luxuriant at once in design, bravura sweep, diaphanous coloration, and exotic languor.

Malko had studied conducting in Munich with the eminent Wagnerian acolyte and Bruckner pupil, Felix Mottl (1856-1911), so it comes a little surprise that Malko’s interpretation of the 1883 Bruckner Seventh Symphony in E Major (rec. 30 January 1960) made a sensation, given the rarity – excepting appearances by Jascha Horenstein – of Bruckner performance in the UK. The musical pulse, once set, proceeds in lyrical and colossal periods, thoroughly in the Bruckner style, as much Austrian laendler as Protestant doxology. Malko achieves a terrific peroration at the first movement coda. The solemn Adagio, resplendent with Wagner textures and allusions, certainly bears an aura of transcendence – in those passages pertinent to Parsifal and Bruckner’s own Te Deum – a sensibility Malko has been rarely allowed, except in certain moments in Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. The buoyant Scherzo bears all the rhythmic hallmarks of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, without the shouting after dead souls. Malko takes the Finale a bit more schnell than some, maintaining a deft clarity in the various lines, exalted and folkishly vulgar, that collide then congeal for a blaze of glory in Technicolor E Major.

The 1924 one-act theater-piece The Spinning Room of Zoltan Kodaly would be rare enough, even if performed in Budapest in its native Hungarian. In that country, its major disciple had been Janos Ferencsik. Here (3 February 1960), as produced in English with Malko and singers Elizabeth Simon, soprano; Norma Proctor and Kathleen Joyce, contraltos; Duncan Robertson, tenor; Denis Dowling, baritone; and Owen Brannigan, bass – we have only the second time the BBC had mounted the work since 1932, when Kodaly led the score. Ostensibly, the work represents a Transylvania folk-ballad in operatic style in seven scenes, some more or less politically allegorical, but in the main devoted to faithful domestic love. A residue of homely charm pervades the work; and the individual vocal talents, including the BBC Chorus, all performing at the Royal Festival Hall, impress with their sincerity of purpose. [There is also a 2-CD Malko set available on EMI, with only one duplication…Ed.]

—Gary Lemco

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