Magazine article Gramophone

Sir Malcolm Sargent: Half a Century after the Conductor's Death, Andrew Achenbach Praises the Oft-Maligned British Musician Who Supported Fellow Artists and Was Capable of Great Things on the Podium

Magazine article Gramophone

Sir Malcolm Sargent: Half a Century after the Conductor's Death, Andrew Achenbach Praises the Oft-Maligned British Musician Who Supported Fellow Artists and Was Capable of Great Things on the Podium

Article excerpt

For more than 40 years, no British conductor enjoyed greater celebrity status or was more successful at introducing classical music to the public than Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967). With his immaculate Savile Row attire and white carnation buttonhole, Sargent would customarily whip up such a frenzy of enthusiasm at the Last Night of the Proms that concerns were voiced within the BBC hierarchy. Needless to say, the promenaders adored him, and the Last Night would not be the flag-waving extravaganza it is today without his example. A showman, a workaholic and someone who demanded the highest standards from performers, Sargent could be difficult to deal with. His private life was colourful to say the least: not only did he count royalty among his acquaintances, but he was also a notorious womaniser. Rank-and-file orchestral musicians (who, he once told a newspaper reporter, might become complacent if offered any kind of job security or pension rights) dubbed him 'Flash Harry', an epithet which has stuck. Since his death, aged 72, his standing among critics has been largely woeful. Michael Kennedy's withering assessment from 1997 is not untypical: 'Sargent was bargain basement. He has perhaps been over-vilified, but one cannot make out a convincing case for drastic rehabilitation. He was a star musical propagandist, not a great conductor.'

To understand that Sargent was indeed capable of great things on the podium one only has to experience his incandescent first complete recording of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (with the incomparable Heddle Nash in the title-role), set down in Huddersfield Town Hall in April 1945. Both here and on his 1944 electrifying world premiere recording of Hoist's The Hymn of Jesus you'll hear choral singing of thrilling discipline and fervour--not for nothing did Sir Thomas Beecham observe that 'he makes the buggers sing like the blazes'. Sargent's unashamedly large-scale performances of Bach's B minor Mass and St Matthew Passion, Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah became regular fixtures in British musical life (he recorded Messiah no fewer than four times).

Sargent's numerous premiere performances of home-grown fare include Walton's Belshazzar's Feast and Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover, Sir John in Love, Riders to the Sea and Ninth Symphony. Nor should we forget his lifelong devotion to the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan (the effervescent 'Glyndebourne'/ EMI Iolanthe, recorded in 1958, is a good starting point) and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's cantata trilogy The Song of Hiawatha (from 1928 to 1939, throngs would descend upon the Royal Albert Hall in London for lavishly staged Hiawatha evenings featuring the Royal Choral Society under Sargent's flamboyant lead). You can hear his affectionate reading of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast in a big Icon box from Warner Classics, along with lots more valuable material: Delius's Songs of Farewell-, his eloquent 1954 remake of Gerontius; Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, a memorably unforced Enigma Variations and silken Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis with the Philharmonia; Hoist's The Planets and Beni Mora with the BBC SO; a watchful, yet deeply felt Beethoven Eroica and shapely Schubert Unfinished with the RPO; Dohnanyi's adorable Suite in F sharp minor (a Sargent speciality--in addition to the 1961 recording here, there's a mono recording from 1948 with the LSO); Sibelius Symphonies Nos 1 and 5 plus assorted tone poems (Pohjola's Daughter is especially gripping); and his underrated Walton's First Symphony with the New Philharmonia Orchestra (overshadowed by the more visceral LSO/ Previn version, also recorded in 1966 and released in the same month in 1967). …

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