Vintage Sir Malcolm Sargent renditions of two Tchaikovsky staples, which according to your taste may prove exceptional.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; Symphony No. 5 in e minor, Op. 64 – Ruggiero Ricci, v./ New Sym. Orch./ BBC Sym. Orch. (Op. 64)/ Sir Malcolm Sargent – Guild GHCD 2425, 78:56 [Distr. By Albany] ****:  

Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) had long proved a strong advocate for the music of Tchaikovsky, so in 1950 Decca arranged for him and Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012) to record what would become the first LP version of the Violin Concerto to be issued in Europe. Given the burnished tone of Ricci’s 1734 Guarneri del Gesu instrument, the Concerto certainly has its moments of sweet bravura. While the scale of Sargent’s performance seems less grand than say, Ormandy’s, and less ferociously intense than that of Mitropoulos, the streamlined affection – among the faster of first movement renditions – remains palpable. Ricci treats the first movement cadenza strictly like an extended Paganini caprice, rife with slides, spiccati, and brilliant changes of register with double stops. I remain skeptical about the cuts that he and Sargent take for the first movement and the third, while I do concede that the original manifests much filler in the repeated two-bar and four-bar phrases.  Ricci can perform with blinding speed when he wills, and the heat he generates compensates for the lack of heroism in the orchestral part.

The Canzonetta: Andante movement will easily win admirers, given Ricci’s heartfelt warmth of expression. The pace moves relatively quickly, without sentimentality. The last movement Allegro vivacissimo enjoys the full “Russian” treatment, with Ricci’s digging into the progression with gypsy flair, especially in the secondary theme, which exploits a kind of bagpipe sonority  in open fifths. Sargent’s strings and woodwinds provide a balletic backdrop to the proceedings, gently limpid. The dialogue between clarinet and oboe, flute and bassoon will likely call up images from The Sleeping Beauty. The last pages truly involve the sanguine temperament, with vivid and pungent collaboration from all principals to resound at the final bars with a thrilling coda. The sound restoration from Peter Reynolds captures Ricci elegantly.

The Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, a Sargent staple, had its recording in 1955 – in the USA, RCA LM-1947 – in order to provide Sargent a 60th birthday present.  In the (dubious) tradition of Mengelberg, Furtwaengler, and Schmidt-Isserstedt, Sargent takes the so-called “authorized” cut of some 100 bars in the last movement. For me, this decision proves ill-advised, since it robs much of the fervent drama of the finale, which the likes of Koussevitzky and Mravinsky opt to retain. A pity really, since the Sargent version, up through the first three movements reveals extremely powerful sympathy with the large gestures of this “fate” symphony. Sargent possesses a natural flair for the rubato that works well in the waltz-like portions of the opening Allegro con anima, and the response from his BBC strings and winds proves persuasive and sonically acute.  The “fate” motif and its militant permutations receive heroic stature.

For those contemporary critics who found the Sargent version more potent than that by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the key lies in the second movement, the Andante cantabile.  Several commentators point out that the return of the main theme – so often a Hollywood call for sentimentality in its “passing parade” – at bar 158 excels in passionate utterance, including some striking oboe playing that ensues.  The French horn part – possibly Sydney Coulston – makes points suavely, as do the complement of BBC wind players. British conductors – Lambert, Coates, Beecham, Boult and Sargent – retain a great sensitivity and flair for the music of Tchaikovsky, despite the fact that professional musicians find his music cloying.  The Valse movement lilts in luscious harmony, the clarinet suavely advancing the melodic lines to the fellow wind and string associates.  The secondary theme figures enjoy the distant cadential beats from the tympani. The combination of the two motives sways and sachets in romantic fashion, unaffected but stylishly ardent.  The last movement – until the excision that finds its “justification” in the composer’s insecurities – could have been one of the great ones. Everything about Sargent’s treatment leans to the colossal and the ominously fateful. So, too, do I lament the Mengelberg performance on the same grounds. If the entire matter boils down to a matter of taste, you have in this BBC performance under Sir Malcolm Sargent a terrifically robust inscription.

—Gary Lemco