Taken from concerts at different times and in different venues it is not surprising that these radio recordings preserved by Richard Itter, sixty or more years in age, are variable in quality. In the 1950s, the most troublesome space in which to record was the Royal Albert Hall and the first example is a 1954 performance of Haydn 99 which took place in that building, the acoustic of which has been problematic from the time that Edward, Prince of Wales made the opening speech in 1871. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had to contend with massive reverberation – it was to be a decade-and-a-half before flying-saucer-lookalikes were placed in the roof to mitigate the distracting echo. Despite some cloudiness there are benefits from the sonority, especially when the woodwinds are given isolated moments. The timpani, though rather booming, are balanced better than in Thomas Beecham’s later studio recordings of Haydn where they are unnaturally mild: unrepresentative of Beecham who, during performances, would shout “come on” to the timpanist! This is a very unhurried Haydn 99 and there is only the occasional whim where a tender woodwind phrase or two is caressed so lovingly as to impede progress. The Minuet has a huge swing to it, measured and rhythmically emphatic.
Beecham’s approach might be criticised for slowness and heaviness but Haydn 101, performed five years later in the more sympathetic acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall, is not quite so weighty. In the Trio of the Minuet the composer writes a deliberate wrong harmony in the first section but corrects it on the repeat; in this version an extreme editorial hand ruins Haydn’s joke by making it correct both times – a sure sign that Beecham is using a bad old editions. The reasonable recorded sound does allow subtleties of phrasing to be heard and strong rhythm keeps the eponymous ‘Clock’ movement alive but there is nothing special about this interpretation. The Boccherini – a conventional three-part ‘Italian Overture’ is from the Usher Hall. Loud but unclear is the impression – a strange little work with a dull central section and a grand but brief Finale.
At the RFH in 1956 Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture sounds clear but with rather gritty strings that are not always precise and even some woodwind entries are questionable. There follow two Mozart Symphonies and these are forceful renderings. Typically there are no exposition repeats (nor were we given any in the Haydn) but we do hear how, when using a full body of strings, Beecham still gets a convincing balance. In No.39, how refreshing that, for once, the beginning of the Allegro in the first movement is at the same tempo as the louder music that follows, and there is also a heftily rhythmic Minuet with delightful clarinet-playing (Jack Brymer, no doubt) in the Trio.
Beethoven 2 from the Royal Festival Hall in 1956 is presented brightly and ebulliently. This is a winning reading apart from the ponderous speed for the Larghetto. Although lacking resonance, loud passages are forceful yet never rowdy but cellos and double basses are rather weak. The Scherzo is exceptionally broad but the tempo works. Maida Vale gives some of the best sound of all, successfully revealing how Beecham makes climactic moments particularly exciting. His interpretation of Brahms 2 is straightforward except for an old-fashioned slowing at the second subject of the Finale. Nevertheless this is exhilarating and the fiery ending is gripping, a highlight of the set and what a blessing that this is a studio performance, it means we are not subjected to applause at the end – why could it not have been removed from all the other recordings?
The RFH Flying Dutchman Overture makes a good impact and the bright recording wears its sixty-three years well, a performance by the youthful seventy-six-year-old conductor that is full of fire and vigour – an unlikely but successful prelude to the 1956 account of Liszt’s Faust Symphony which took place at the same concert as the Mendelssohn and Beethoven works, and which has also been available on the SOMM label since 2009. Beecham gives a dramatic reading with fine singing from the men of the chorus in their brief appearance together with an eloquent contribution from Alexander Young. The sound may not compare with the two-year-later EMI stereo recording but it copes with the many massive climaxes and is decently balanced. There are one or two minor horn slips and towards the end there is the occasional sign of tiring strings but the playing elsewhere is stunning.
Only rarely in this set is the sound less than adequate and it is a privilege to hear so many Beecham performances for the first time. An interesting collection even though examples of genius are sometimes presented alongside moments of eccentricity, but then that was the nature of Sir Thomas Beecham.