BBC Legends – Sir Thomas Beecham Conducts Beethoven 9

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

The performance is preceded by “The British National Anthem”

Sylvia Fisher (soprano)
Nan Merriman (mezzo-soprano)
Richard Lewis (tenor)
Kim Borg (bass)

Edinburgh Festival Chorus

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Thomas Beecham

Recorded on 19 August 1956 in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: May 2007
BBCL 4209-2
Duration: 72 minutes



This Edinburgh Festival Concert was preceded by the National Anthem, complete with all three of today’s accepted verses (there were once five). There is an oddity however. I have always known the text of the second verse (beginning: “Oh Lord our God arise…”) to be followed by the wish that the sovereign’s enemies should be made to scatter and fall. The verse then continues with the delightfully non-diplomatic exhortation to “confound their politics; frustrate their knavish tricks…”. To my surprise, in this recording, only the first four words of the verse are to be heard – the remainder are nothing like those mentioned above and are so indistinct that I cannot hear what they are about. Perhaps the chorus was also confused by the change. In his very interesting booklet note, Graham Melville-Mason mentions that the Presbyterian Church of Scotland had already persuaded the Festival Committee to abandon the planned performance at this concert of Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” on the grounds that a Catholic Mass was unacceptable in Edinburgh on the Sabbath. Surely they cannot also have been responsible for altering the National Anthem, especially as the Queen was present?

What then of the Symphony – a work with which I have never associated Sir Thomas Beecham, and indeed had not known of his ever conducting it. This is 1956 and in those days we did not have conductors such as Mackerras and Zinman striving fiercely for strict adherence to the composer’s instructions. Musicians such as Hogwood and Norrington with their ‘period’ instrument bands were unheard of. There were however challenging representations of the work in those days: Wilhelm Furtwängler gave very personal but toweringly powerful readings – his 1954 Lucerne Festival performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra shortly before his death can be described without reservation as ‘great’. Horenstein was more ‘Classical’ in his choice of tempos but much the same fire burned. The more traditional German approach, achieving grandeur and nobility, was provided by such conductors as Erich Kleiber and Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.

Here we have Sir Thomas Beecham – that most ‘English’ of conductors and, in the event, I detect nothing to reveal the conductor’s nationality, in fact had I not read his name I should have been very hard put to it to identify Beecham by the style of conducting. The approach here is one of high drama, yet the phrasing is amazingly ‘comfortable’ in that the phrases are moulded almost like the inflections of speech and each melody is rounded off in a manner so logical that it might almost be described as predictable. All this is within a very purposeful use of tempo. Beecham does not alter the pulse for effect, there are perhaps some unexpected choices, but once selected, speeds are adhered to.

The first movement is bold and dramatic, driving grimly forward all the time. The cataclysmic return of the theme at the recapitulation is a huge test for the interpreter – Beecham emerges triumphant – bar after bar of orchestral fury, underpinned by the continuous fortissimo of the timpani with fierce accents where necessary ensure that this interpretation is to be taken seriously.

The scherzo is slower than usual. There is an unusual treatment of the passage where, led by the bassoon, the chattering woodwind theme after the first double bar is interrupted by dramatic drum strokes. Here Beecham chooses greatly to underplay the drama, welding all the instruments mellifluously together. The trio is nothing like as fast as Beethoven’s required Presto, yet it moves forward sufficiently at the end of its preceding accelerando to give a light touch with beautiful moulding of the melodies.

Unhurried and mellifluous, the slow movement is full of repose. With great conviction, Beecham has the wild dissonance of the finale crashing in immediately. This is the movement where eyebrows might be raised: from the first orchestral announcement of the great main theme it is clear that tempos will be slow – yet it is refreshing that the theme remains steady throughout. Kim Borg makes a fine job of his bass solo and although I have heard Richard Lewis sing the military tenor solo many times, he sounds stronger here than I ever recall. These are the vocal high points along with the superbly recorded chorus; the words are entirely clear throughout. Yes the choral singers have an unrefined sound, but they are so powerful that this can be forgiven. Less comfortable are the many occasions when the soloists sing together. They seem to push their voices and also use much vibrato; and there are many moments when, not to put too fine a point on it, they are considerably out of tune.

The most unexpectedly slow tempo of all is at the huge unison return of the main theme for full chorus. I have never heard it anything like as slow as this before and the unexpected result is that it makes the passage sound absolutely thrilling. By contrast, the final pages are extraordinarily fast – this is a tremendous peroration. It is taken at huge speed yet it never sounds rushed. There may have been moments of imprecision previously but this is marvellously together.

The recording is drier than I find comfortable. My one reservation about balance concerns the first violins – an unusual complaint. We cannot know whether the BBC engineers of the 1950s ‘rode the sliders’ in their search for detail, but sometimes the violins are well balanced, at other times they are almost completely lost, even when they have the main theme. The most extreme example of this is in the introduction to the finale when reference is made to the theme of the first movement – I simply cannot detect the violins below the held woodwind. In all, the rather grainy sound is not very special and some of the climaxes are blurred yet, violins apart, there remains excellent detail.

Clearly a great occasion – don’t let my criticism of the performance of the National Anthem deter anyone from exploring a very special reading of the symphony – it is unlike any other interpretation.

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