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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1875-1943)
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.3 No.2 (arr. Sargent) [4:30]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op.18 [32:32]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op.44 [39:03]
Cyril Smith (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra; Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
rec. 24 September 1931, Queen’s Hall London; 12-13 June 1947, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool; 5 May 1953, Abbey Road Studios, London

This is the second Guild volume I have reviewed in their much welcomed foray into the Russian repertoire championed by Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967). In an 18 CD Warner Icon set I reviewed last year, there was a notable absence of Russian composers, a niche in which the conductor excelled. Guild are to be applauded for plugging the lacunae. Their first volume was devoted to Tchaikovsky; here we can savour Sargent’s take on Rachmaninov.

This conductor's recording career spanned 42 years (1924-1966) across which he amassed a sizeable and varied discography. He was atypical in that he worked freelance, never signing exclusively for one label: ‘Anyone can employ me to conduct, any soloist can ask for me and any record company can issue me. I have never signed myself up exclusively anywhere or with anyone’. In the forties, fifties and early sixties he was one of the pillars of the English concert scene and was at the helm of the Hallé (1939-42), the Liverpool Philharmonic (1942-48) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1950-57). As chief conductor at the Proms (1947-67) he had tremendous influence in the programming of concerts, conducting nearly 50% of them himself. He was knighted in 1947.

Guild have dusted down three rare recordings made over a twenty-two year period. The earliest dates from September 1931 made for the HMV Plum Label series. It's Sargent’s own impressive orchestration of the ubiquitous Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.3 No.2. Despite its popularity in its original piano incarnation, the composer did not benefit financially from it. He had sold the copyright in Russia as a teenager, not foreseeing the appeal and fame it would subsequently acquire. Sargent’s skill as a fine orchestrator is much in evidence and I doubt whether Stokowski could have done any better.
I was rather surprised to read in the accompanying booklet that Sargent had actually performed the Rachmaninov Second Concerto, with himself as pianist, in the 1920s. This gave him an intimate knowledge of the work when he came to record it with the British pianist Cyril Smith in June 1947. Smith acquired a reputation as an outstanding Rachmaninov interpreter. At the Proms, between 1938 and 1955, he programmed a Rachmaninov concerto on no fewer than sixteen occasions but, surprisingly, the second only once in 1950. The recording here was made in June 1947 during Sargent’s seven-year tenure with the Liverpool Philharmonic. What impresses me with this reading is the way the conductor keeps excessive emotion under wraps. This is a cultivated and contained performance. All concerned acquit themselves with distinction. In the more lyrical moments, Smith shares some heartfelt poetic insights and achieves a distinctive palette of tonal colour with discreet use of pedal and sensitive touch. Conductor and players supply responsive support throughout. Sargent recorded the concerto again with Moura Lympany in the early sixties (Magdalen METCD8016).

The Third Symphony was composed in Switzerland in 1935-1936, and was the composer’s penultimate orchestral work. It was premiered, in the year of its completion, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. Although it got off to a shaky start, reception-wise, Sargent was a great advocate and champion. Between 1948 and 1955, he conducted it on five occasions at the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The composer himself had recorded it in 1939 (Vista Vera, RCA-BMG, Naxos, Naxos, Pearl and Dutton Vocalion CDVS1921) and there had been a Russian recording pre-dating Sargent’s by Nicolai Anosov and the USSR State Symphony.

The success of this recording is to some extent due to the familiarity with the score of both conductor and players. The other factor is Sargent’s approach to the lush romanticism of the music: he does not lapse into self-indulgence. Throughout, he handles the cut and thrust of the work with distinction, building up the climaxes with drama and intensity A Russian melancholy and nostalgia pervades the reading, and in the romantic moments, at no time can he be accused of over-gilding the lily. In the second movement, there is nuanced subtlety in the filigree harp accompaniment. The finale embodies optimism, energy and drive.

The transfers and re-mastering are first-rate. Liner-notes, in English only, by Robert Matthew-Walker are informative. Is there more to come from Sargent’s discographical Russian legacy? We’ll have to wait and see.

Stephen Greenbank