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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [46:30]
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 (1878) [31:59]
Ruggiero Ricci (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra (Concerto), New Symphony Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent (Symphony)
rec. 1950, London (Concerto), 1955 (Symphony)
GUILD GHCD2425 [78:56]

Malcolm Sargent, somewhat confusingly perhaps, made two recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in the space of five years. This is the earlier, made in 1955 with the BBC Symphony, whereas at the end of the decade he recorded it with the LSO for Everest, where it can again be found on SDBR3039.

As a previous Guild CD has demonstrated [GHCD 2409] Sargent was a dedicated exponent of Tchaikovsky’s music, espousing it often at the Proms. At the time it was not uncommon for conductors to take the near 100 bar excision in the finale that the composer had employed when conducting the symphony in Hamburg. Schmidt-Isserstedt, Mengelberg and Furtwängler were just three of the most prominent conductors who shared Sargent’s view, following the 1889 composer’s precedent.

Released to mark Sargent’s 60th birthday this is a finely conceived, architecturally cogent reading that highlights a purposeful account featuring fine individual contributions from the BBC principals. However, when one turns to the later Everest recording one encounters a very different sonic and interpretative landscape. Here Sargent is on galvanizing form, the LSO surpassing the BBC in terms of individuality, and the sound itself, using 35mm tape, of demonstration class. As a result, this 1955 recording, which preserves some LP detritus, is the less imposing and recommendable.

This Guild disc is a game of doubles. Sargent recorded the Fifth twice in the 50s and the same is true of the Violin Concerto - on both occasions with Ruggiero Ricci, the second time with the LSO. This 1950 Decca recording with the New Symphony Orchestra was the first British LP of the Concerto to be released and I reviewed Pearl’s transfer back in 2002, the year Ricci retired.

As I wrote in that long-ago review, I have to admit that I was surprised how good the concerto sounds. Ricci evinces real style and his own brand of bravura. There are some fairly typical of-their-time textual emendations to the score but there is much to admire in his typically forthright and extrovert performance.

The galvanizing violin run around 4.50 in the first movement, with its rubato maybe slightly theatrically imposed, is exciting (but doesn’t it seem just slightly artificial?). Ricci’s vibrato is exceptionally fast, as ever, though it’s not, in this recording, as violently oscillatory as it could sometimes become and sounds here under firm control. He is vibrant, expressive with no gauche slides and good finger position changes. Sargent is an excellent foil for Ricci and shapes the work with excellently contoured understanding. Listen in the second movement where both soloist and conductor prepare the lyrical argument with superbly timed aplomb. Maybe there is some rather smeary playing from the soloist and a little – surely forgivable – sentimentalising though Ricci’s attitude to such criticism would doubtless be as robust as his playing – he was once quoted as saying that it was "better to be a prostitute than a nun" and, translated into musical terms, that meant overplay rather than understate. The finale is steady and effective, one small intonational blemish aside, albeit that it’s not the most convulsive and propulsive account or one that I’d assumed it would be.

Robert Matthew-Walker’s notes are characteristically precise and Guild’s transfer is smoother than Pearl’s thornier but attractive one. Its release offers two good performances, though the symphony is to be heard to better advantage in the recording on Everest.

Jonathan Woolf


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