Sir Malcolm Sargent conducts TCHAIKOVSKY: Marche Slav; Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture; Waltz; Theme and Variations from Suite No. 3; 1812 Overture – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ Sir Malcolm Sargent – Guild

by | Apr 28, 2014 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Sir Malcolm Sargent conducts TCHAIKOVSKY: Marche Slav, Op. 31; Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture; Waltz from Sleeping Beauty; Theme and Variations from Suite No. 3 in G Major, Op. 55; 1812 Overture in E-flat Major, Op. 49 – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ Sir Malcolm Sargent – Guild GHCD 2409, 70:15 [Distr. by Albany] ****: 

The flamboyant British conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) led the Henry Wood Proms concerts in Britain, especially after the death of Sir Thomas Beecham, often specializing in Russian repertory. The assembled works of Peter Tchaikovsky in this Guild reissue derive from inscriptions Sargent made for HMV in 1955 and 1960. The performance of the familiar 1876 Marche Slav (rec. 5 January 1960) typifies the approach: the energized virtuosic treatment – winds, brass, snare drum, and cymbals in bold relief – highlights the series of patriotic themes Tchaikovsky utilizes to claim sympathy for the Russian side of the Serbo-Turkish war, in which Russia aided the Serbs, and Tchaikovsky needed an occasional piece for a Red Cross concert. Auditors familiar with the Rodzinski and Mitropoulos renditions from Cleveland and New York, respectively, will find Sargent’s Royal Philharmonic equal to their example.

The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy (1880) underwent several revisions by the composer, including a softer ending Stokowski favored. Influenced as much by Balakirev’s insistence on sonata-form as by Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, Tchaikovsky fashions his patented emotional response to the literary opus, his establishing a B Minor chorale as the source of despair and then vaguely outlining a conflict that finds transcendent consolation in the ardent love-scene. Does the periodic cymbals’ clash symbolize the swordplay in the drama, especially Romeo’s fateful slaying of Tybalt? The music moves briskly to the funeral march and love music played itself as a dirge. A series of misterioso chords from the RPO woodwinds answered by strings, harp and pedal points invokes the transformation of the lovers into legend, finalized by the big-chord, tympanic ending. Sargent’s earthy rendition (25 January 1960) at 21 minutes gives more breadth to the score than Cantelli’s of the same period, but far less than Celibidache, who lingers forever over every phrase.

The popular Act I Waltz from the 1889 ballet Sleeping Beauty celebrates Princess Aurora’s sixteenth birthday. The RPO flute, horn, strings, and glockenspiel combine (27 January 1960) for some lilting colors. Curiously, this reviewer first heard this enchanting waltz in a version by Andre Kostelanetz, equally persuasive. Concertmaster Manoug Parikian lends his solo talent to the violin part of the Theme and Variations from the 1884 Suite in G Major.  Except for a CBS LP version of the complete Suite by Thomas Scherman and a slightly later version by Sir Adrian Boult, few recordings of the entire opus existed, since conductors like Kempe and Matacic seemed content with the permutations of the finale alone. Sargent divided his recording sessions – 24 March and 8 June 1955 – for the HMV recording. The nicely graduated series of color variants shows of the RPO to advantage, in Russian, British, Slavic, and even Latin (via the Dies Irae) characters.  Parikian’s contribution against the piping winds and pizzicato strings deliberately instills a balletic muse into the proceedings. Sargent effects a lovely transition to the pageant that marks the extended, brilliant coda, a fine demonstration of the RPO’s capacity for grandeur as well as exalted lyricism; more the pity that Sargent did not enjoy the EMI imprimatur to record the whole Suite. 

The Sargent rendition of the 1882 1812 Overture is straightforward, with the addition of military cannon and extra brass and organ for the coda. After Igor Bouketoff’s windfall recording for RCA with chorus, most purely orchestral versions seem pale, missing the invocation to the Lord to deliver Russia from the onslaughts of Napoleon. But like Dorati’s famed Mercury extravaganza, Sargent’s plays the piece for all the pomp his forces can muster. Kitsch, but splendidly exciting nonetheless.

—Gary Lemco

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