SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 1 in E Minor; Pohjola’s Daughter; Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major – BBC Sym. Orch. /Sir Malcolm Sargent – Guild

SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39; Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49; Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82 – BBC Symphony Orch. /Sir Malcolm Sargent – Guild mono GHCD 2414, 79:30 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

The 1956 and 1958 recordings of the music of Sibelius by Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) as they appear here on this Guild reissue coincide exactly with the Warner Classics issue (Vol. 16) on its ICON Series: Malcolm Sargent: The Great Recordings (2564 63412-1), except that set consists of 18 CDs. For the less ambitious collector of vintage Sir Malcolm Sargent, the Guild makes an alluring introduction to his representation of this composer, who in a moment of appreciation, signed a photograph of himself that bore the inscription, “To Sir Malcolm Sargent, with gratitude and admiration from Jean Sibelius.”  Collectors may likewise recall that Sargent inscribed a series of symphonic poems by Sibelius with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a disc much lauded in its time.

The 1899 E Minor Symphony (rec. 27 August 1956) receives a convincing performance from Sargent: the opening Andante, marked by a clarinet and a tympani on pedal-point, establishes a nexus of themes Sibelius will develop in his Allegro energico, punctuated by sustained chords and sounding brass, then responsive thirds in the flutes over shimmering strings and harp glissandos. The BBC, even in monaural sound, manages a slickly effective Northern sheen in this music, resonant with Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but no less provocative of still, vast expanses of wintry beauty. After an expressive Andante second movement, Sargent turns up the throttle for the Allegro, a scherzo well in the manner of the Beethoven Ninth. The rebellious BBC tympani becomes hyper-active, even manic in its ineluctable course to the Quasi una fantasia last movement, whose majestic finale theme (Andante) tries to emulate the noble expressivity in the Brahms C Minor Symphony last movement.

The 1906 symphonic poem Pohjola’s Daughter takes its source from the eighth book of the Kalevala but incorporates music for an aborted oratorio Sibelius worked on called Marjatta. The Kalevala tale involves a hero, Vainamoinen, who for the ardor of a maiden (Pohjola) embarks on a series of tasks that fail to achieve their end. The Sargent rendition (25 August 1958) projects a lustrously bright patina, especially since the score indulges the winds and brass with forces based on Sibelius’ appreciation of the Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben. A muscular, optimistic reading in spite of the hero’s failure, this performance testifies to the opulent response the BBC players could render when so motivated.

The same opulent sound permeates the Sargent reading of the E-flat Major Symphony (1915; rev. 1916 and 1919), whose structure might easily be construed as three interlocking arches that each build on a principle of crescendo. In my own listening experience, there have been sympathetic and colossal accounts of the Sibelius Fifth, including those by Bernstein, Karajan, Barbirolli, and this Sargent, but none impresses me so much for the taut, titanic layering of the first movement’s stretti as Celibidache and the Danish Symphony Orchestra or his close second with the Swedish Radio Symphony. I do appreciate the nicely balanced BBC color elements (in stereo) that infiltrate the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto, with their pizzicato strings and staccato woodwinds. The finale intensifies motifs heard prior in the work, then it evolves a hymn or chorale supposedly inspired by Sibelius’ vision of swans which flew above a lake adjoining his property. Sargent plods somewhat through the modulations but inevitably works up a fierce peroration en route to the triumphant E-flat that unambiguously rings out in full Northern Technicolor. Sargent then dramatically paces those six, spaced-out chords that seal the hammer blows of a destiny hard won.  The sonic remastering by Peter Reynolds certainly rocked my head and my musical imagination in contrary directions.

—Gary Lemco

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