Sir Malcolm Sargent conducts Berlioz The Damnation of Faust

The Itter broadcast colection has spread its wings beyond the raft of releases on the Lyrita label to this vintage set of transfers from acetates deriving from BBC concerts during 1953-54 on the Cameo Classics imprint. It contains two recordings conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent at London’s Royal Festival Hall, regarded in the 1950s as a model of acoustic excellence but later excoriated on account of its over-analytic effect and lack of resonance which has only finally been addressed in recent years. It seems however to have worked well as a recording venue in these BBC broadcasts, with results in terms of sound that surpass many studio tapings of the same period. And both of the recordings here have value in the fact that they preserve performances by major artists who did not otherwise set down their readings of the scores for posterity.

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The team of Joan Hammond and Richard Lewis appears to have been a favourite of the BBC during this era; some two years ago I reviewed for this site a CRQ transcription of a 1955 broadcast they made (in English) of Smetana’s Dalibor, noting their contributions with approval while regretting the evidence of wear on the acetates of that recording (made by the conductor Vilem Tausky) – evidence which is gratefully nowhere in evidence in Norman White’s transfers here. The part of Faust fits Richard Lewis well, with no signs of strain and only occasional points where dramatic involvement seems to be lacking; he takes the notorious high C-sharps in his duet with Gretchen in full chest voice, which Berlioz would have not have expected, but supplies plenty of heroic tone in his Invocation to Nature (CD2, track 7). Joan Hammond, by this stage in her career, finds the lower range of Marguerite’s tessitura to her taste although she can still supply plenty of full tone in the upper reaches; but it is a great pity that her delivery of the King of Thule ballad (CD1, track 18) is marred by coughing from the audience that betrays all too obviously the presence of a disease-ridden London audience in the midst of winter. Their contribution indeed, here and elsewhere, is sometimes more prominent than that of the players or singers, and may have been a factor in the sense of unnecessary speed that is sometimes gained by the proceedings – in places considerably faster than Berlioz’s metronome markings.

In fact the sense of dramatic involvement here comes and goes by fits and starts. Some of the ‘big numbers’, most notably the Hungarian March in Part One (CD1, track 3) are delivered with minimal relevance to the material around them – the anticipations of the march go for little in the earlier sections, for example – and the balances can sometimes go awry with winds and brasses too far forward. This is shown at its worst in the Dance of the Will-o’-the-Wisps (CD2, track 2) where the melodic material in the violins almost disappears between the combination of over-enthusiastic wind playing and the hacking coughing of the audience. Elsewhere the balance is much more satisfactory, and Sir Malcolm Sargent recovers from his somewhat phlegmatic tempi in the Cellar Scene to produce a really thrilling Ride to the Abyss (CD2, track 9). Here however his efforts are rather abnegated by the woolly diction of the Polish bass Marian Nowakowski, whose command of English vowels is alarmingly variable (although Hammond can be equally opaque in diction, and the best use of the text comes from Hervey Alan in the small role of Brander). It may be to accommodate Nowakowski’s difficulties that Sargent allows for cuts to be made in his contributions to Parts Three and Four (which usefully are shown in the text provided in the booklet) although there is a further truncation of the score at the beginning of Part Three where the introductory Prelude is excised, so that the music begins rather abruptly with Faust’s aria (CD1, track 15). The omission of the postlude to Marguerite’s Romance (CD2, track 6) is also unfortunate.

Sargent rises to his reputation as a conductor of choral scores with his handling of the choir throughout, although the BBC reprehensibly fail to provide the children’s choir specified by Berlioz for the final scene and there is clearly no attempt made to differentiate between the soldiers and students in their double chorus (CD1, track 14). The singing translation by Paul England seems to work well, although it departs in many respects from both Goethe’s original German and Berlioz’s sometimes inelegant French adaptation. The demons at the end are of course left in their original devilish lingo manufactured on their behalf by Berlioz, where they sound inappropriately slightly more cautious than elsewhere. The Epilogue on Earth (CD2, track 11) is assigned not to Berlioz’s “six basses seules” but to a solo voice (uncredited, but not I think Hervey Alan) who delivers his horrific lines with much too great a sense of complacency. The solo soprano in the finale is clearly not Joan Hammond, but seems to be a similarly anonymous voice from the ranks of the chorus.

The solo soprano in Dvořák’s Te Deum, an unexpected but substantial bonus to these discs, is far from anonymous, for we have here Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at the height of her powers in one of the composer’s most dramatic works with its storming timpani opening and superbly contrasted textures. At first these textures do not seem to register with as much strength as they should, the strings in particular sounding somewhat backward in the Festival Hall acoustic in a manner that sounds more muffled than the balances the engineers contrived the previous year. But by the end everything comes together with lots of panache, and the contributions of Bruce Boyce and the chorus achieve a real sense of inspiration. The audience too are less bronchitis-prone in May than they were in February. It is a pity that Cameo Classics did not furnish us with a copy of the Latin text or a translation, but these are easy enough to obtain. The substantial booklet does however furnish us not only with the English text employed for the Berlioz, but with a valuable and extensive 1955 analysis of the music by Ian Kemp.

So far as I am aware, there are no other recordings of Berlioz’s Damnation sung in English in the current catalogues, and this set will therefore have an appeal beyond those who simply wish to hear Hammond and Lewis in two roles that might well have been written with their specific talents in mind. And then of course the many fans of Sir Malcolm will want to acquire any recordings of his period with the BBC. And finally, all of us should be grateful to the late Richard Itter for preserving these performances which makes releases such as these possible. MusicWeb-International

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