Sir Malcolm Sargent = RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43; DOHNANYI: Variations on a Nursery Song, Op. 25; DVORAK: Symphonic Variations, Op. 78 – Cyril Smith, p./ Philharmonia Orch./ Sir Malcolm Sargent – Guild GHCD 2420, 68:00 (5/5/15) [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Noted British piano virtuoso Cyril Smith (1909-1974) made a reputation in the music of Dohnanyi and Rachmaninov, his talent extending to Russia, where in Kharkov, 1956, Smith suffered a debilitating stroke – much like his contemporary and compatriot, Solomon – that ended his career as a concert soloist. While conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) remains the focus of this latest Guild release, the two collaborations with Smith strike us for their muscular facility, girded by the immaculate level of accompaniment provided by Walter Legge’s Philharmonia Orchestra of London (est. 1946).

The ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (rec. 1 October 1948) easily rivals the inscription by the composer from 1934, with alternately blazing speeds and its requisite episodes of lyric poetry, of which Variation No. 18 in D-flat Major has dominated the concert halls. The oft-documented talent that occupied the Philharmonia’s woodwind and brass sections proves consistently engaged and engaging. The ensuing variants after the pizzicati in the strings offer as bravura series of explosive energies as collectors are likely to encounter.

Smith recorded the Dohnanyi “Nursery Tune” Variations twice with Sargent, with two different orchestras.  The present recording, from 14 January 1953, once more conjoins brilliant virtuosity with lyric sensibility. The waltz elements achieve a dreamy, semi-Viennese character, soon illuminated by the mock-martial effects between high pipes, low winds, and the keyboard. Carillon bells and music-box sonorities ensue, a truly magical realization of this eminently colorful vehicle for all principals. The various ironies present in the piece – the allusions to Die Walkuere – as well as its application of a “learned” style in the dense Passacaglia of the tenth variation,  move with sturdy purpose, testifying to the wit and erudition of the composer, who at the time of composition, was in Bartok’s words, “the very definition of Hungarian music.”

Collectors of Sargent’s work on original vinyl will recall that his inscription of Dvorak’s 1877 Symphonic Variations (20 & 22 February 1956) filled the last side of a two-record presentation of Smetana’s complete Ma Vlast. The Dvorak opus consists of twenty-seven continuous variations on what Dvorak noted as an original theme, a part-song entitled, “I am a poo wandering fiddler.” The piece’s celebrity became assured in 1887, when the composer led a performance in March, whereupon it came to the attention of conductor Hans Richter.  Sargent takes the original tune at a marginally slower tempo than does Beecham, but its strong C Major basis cedes to palpable, canny modulations into the enharmonic regions of G-flat and F-sharp.   The composer’s rich counterpoints dominate the first sixteen variants, almost all of which conform to the 2/4 meter, until a scherzino variant (No. 17) shuffles us in more asymmetrical patterns towards a monumental fugue.  When Richter performed the Variations for the first time in London, he queried Dvorak on his reluctance to publicize the work for ten years: “Why have you kept it back for so long? These Variations belong beside your best compositions.”

Peter Reynolds’ remastering of the original documents – courtesy of Edward Johnson – preserves the innately warm resonance that well defines the Sargent sound.

—Gary Lemco