Beecham and the Austro-German Masters

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55, “Eroica” [recorded 1951/2, Studio One, Abbey Road]

Coriolan – Overture, Op.62 [1953, Walthamstow Town Hall]



Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68, “Pastoral” [1951/2, Abbey Road]

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93 [1951, AR]



Symphony No.93 in D [1950, Kingsway Hall]

Symphony No.94 in G, “Surprise” [1951, AR]

Symphony No.103 in E flat, “Drumroll” [1951, KH]



Der fliegende Holländer – Overture

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act III, Dance of the Apprentices & Entry of the Masters

Parsifal – Good Friday Music

Götterdämmerung – Siegfried’s Rhine Journey & Funeral Music

Lohengrin – Prelude to Act 1

[NB: not all recording information known; mostly Walthamstow between 1951-54]



Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham

Reviewed by: Bill Newman

Reviewed: July 2002
CD No: (Details below)

On the front of the original Columbia LP cover of the ’Eroica’ is a profile photo of Sir Thomas, half-smiling, a wicked glint in his eye, his nose and beard slightly raised – by far my favourite of all his portraits. It would be nice to imagine that Beecham talked to Beethoven in a dream and asked permission for his picture to take the place of the rejected dedicatee Napoleon Bonaparte!

The CD booklet includes lovely liner quotes from a Manchester Guardian review by Neville Cardus concerning a Beecham 1931 Eroica in Leeds with the London Philharmonic – Beecham obtained from the orchestra “the strength and that grotesque energy which is Beethoven’s unparalleled characteristic”. This 1951/2 Eroica (eight months separate the sessions) is not the equivalent of Teutonic performances that largely disappeared with Furtwängler and Kempe, two musicians whom Sir Thomas admired greatly.

The pulse is mostly uniform throughout the first movement, the repeat deemed unfashionable at the time. Slight slowings and quickenings are made in accordance with the score, groups of wind and brass merging beautifully with strings, except in diminuendos where solos stand out. What is obvious is its complete adherence to the style of performance which has become universally accepted, totally the reverse of those where new musicological findings still remain unsupported by definite proof of what the composer agreed to. Sir Charles Mackerras, an advocate of Felix Weingartner, is equally purposeful at faster speeds. The triumph of Beecham at a moderate pace is his attention to detail.

The desolate, restrained beginning of the ’Funeral March’ has an opaque quality in which Terence McDonagh (oboe), Gwydion Brooke (bassoon), Gerald Jackson (flute) and Jack Brymer (clarinet) nestle the string lines comfortably without forcing the pace. When the pace doubles with the second subject, there is just sufficient rise in tension when trumpet fanfares ring through the textures. The point where the emotions begin to build is the commencement of the development, the architectural strands overlapping with one another to form a continuous line. This is never overdone in terms of stricken grief; instead, there is a feeling of sublime regrets which signal that an era has come to its close, along with sad memories for departed souls.

Beecham’s view of the ’Scherzo’ is steadiness of pace, allowing for clarity of accents, with springiness of staccato lines in the strings and point in the wind punctuation. The ’Trio’ section is at the same speed, and one marvels at the absolute togetherness of Dennis Brain and his horn-playing colleagues, oboe asides and sudden string crescendos that are held on a supple leash of precise articulation with marvellous shadings.

The ’Finale’, with its felicitous inventions, charming interludes and bold scene-changes starts in similar vein, without the ’presto’ associations normally inflicted on its opening measures. Beecham holds it in check until the key change, which I see as a bucolic interlude. Returning to the home key, we arrive at that beautifully crafted section for winds and strings that leads to the noble surging statement for horns supported by trumpets and strings. The gradual, then dramatic shift during the coda is held together magnificently, never breaking the spell of dignity where the process begins, or the epic spirit of excitement in the symphony’s conclusion.

Beecham’s 7-minute Coriolan is a fast, furious battler of precocious decisions and lively temperament – rather like a Wimbledon tennis star serving up aces at 125 mph! A constantly motivated chromatic bass figure supports Coriolan’s changes of action, while the tender, loving central subject shows a more poetic side to his character. Beecham emulates Toscanini overall, though the fade away in the coda is more magical.

Beecham’s recording of the ’Pastoral’ is one of the finest ever made, despite the non-observance of the first movement repeat. I well remember Beecham conducting the work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Maida Vale Studios during this period. Paul Beard (one of the original leaders of Sir Thomas’s LPO) was then the BBCSO’s leader, and cognoscent of Sir Adrian Boult’s observance of repeats annotated in the score. When it came to the place in question half of the orchestra made the repeat, the remainder did not. A huge yell broke out from Beecham and, after floundering, the performance went on in a state of confusion for half a minute!

There is a feeling of complete rightness about the first movement in this recording, Beecham’s memories of childhood delights (often related to friends and associates), and prankish glee, are quite clearly heard in his crafty treatment of the repeating rhythms. These are allowed to surge aloft before being terminated by an arresting flick of his baton (and no doubt a wily side grin to his string players), with absolutely no break in the pulse. There are glorious solos in ’Scene by the Brook’ and melting phrases that never cloy into sentimentality by overuse of rubato.

The ’Scherzo’ – twice the speed of Klemperer’s Philharmonia version – has a dazzling, effervescent quality that shows off the whole orchestra, while ’The Thunderstorm’, if it lacks the excitement of Toscanini’s BBC and NBC versions, is far more musical in feeling. The transitory flow connects up, via a bridge passage, with the ’Shepherd’s Song’. This is taken at a fairly brisk ’Allegretto’, unlike some conductors who slow the pace down and never establish a real tempo.

Symphony No.8 is likewise perfectly attuned to Beecham’s personality. I have the impression that there is slight pitch oscillation due to poor tape storage, but one would have to go back to the original 33CX Columbia LP to make a judgement on this. The sharpness of Beecham’s response to Beethoven’s sforzandi is once more in the ascendancy. Remember that Beecham would not have been impressed with Beethoven’s metronome indications, unlike Hermann Scherchen when he made his Westminster recording with the RPO a couple of years later. Beecham never had to be fast or brilliant in his interpretations; a clarity of thought and decision were all that was required to bring off a performance that critics and public considered ideal, and this one is no exception.

The second movement, with its sliding motives interweaving and interconnecting to form a chain-link of delights, is as perfect for Beethoven as it is for the orchestral players. There are mock-martial connections in the ’Tempo di Menuetto’ that are portrayed by Brooke’s highlighted counter-displays of accompaniment, while Brain’s horn ’brigade’, topped by Jack Brymer’s deliberately dry-sounding clarinet and followed by humorous off-beat phrases from the double basses, are prime examples of Beethoven’s – and Beecham’s – sense of fun.

The amazing thing about Beecham’s ’Finale’, an ’Allegro vivace’ about two-thirds slower than Scherchen’s high-powered Tommy-gun fusillade, is that it is neither too fleeting or too stodgy. He keeps his bass line light-fingered, the overall-effect largely lyrical. There is also that slight urge to accelerate in the final bars – discipline wins the day.

Sir Thomas Beecham’s affinity with the music of Joseph Haydn is no more deeply felt than in the so-called ’London’ Symphonies.

No.93 now sounds a little hard and not totally constant in its pitch; perhaps the microphones were not ideally placed to catch the normal ambience of Kingsway Hall, and there’s some poor editing. Be that as it may, the quality of the performance still shines through in abundance; I was reminded of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. This is purely a question of timbre, as the young protégé’s layout is considerably extended and elaborated compared to Haydn’s dramatic chord followed by snake-like descents to lower regions – sounding vaguely sinful the way Beecham leans on the phrase, subtly altering the dynamic emphasis as the line takes shape. The lead-in to the triple-time first subject is masterly too, and here one experiences further knowledge of how Beethoven benefited from his old master in the way the themes develop – the buffeting sequences, gallant one moment, full of panache the next – to and fro, almost at will. There is a strong feeling of completeness here – not only in the magnificent orchestral response to the conductor’s overall determination to assert his personality on every bar, but the way Beecham defies musicological opinions that, in his opinion, stifled the music’s progress.

Listen to the loving way he phrases the next movement, a ’Largo cantabile’, while the ’Menuetto and Trio’ – graceful and courtly with counterpoint lower strings emphasising the rhythms – has one major surprise. At the repeat-close of the Trio section, the arco string octaves are played pizzicato and sound like a body of guitarists. Unmarked in my score, Beecham did the same thing in his later recording. The medium-paced ’Presto’ attempts to avoid concentration on main themes by going off at various tangents, then being pulled up in dramatic style. The conductor’s emphatic ending places a firm stop on proceedings.

The sustained elegance to the opening of Symphony No.94 is given a joyous uplift at the start of the main subject with its ’Vivace assai’ evenness of pulse. Nobody can fail to relish Terry McDonagh’s pointed oboe variation over cantilena plucked strings in the second movement. The boisterous ’Menuet and Trio’ – the unison themes imitating each other, moving in contrary directions, has the feel of peasants relaxing after their toils, while the sprightly ’Finale’ combines light-hearted graciousness and virtuoso feel for brilliant string writing and fugal explorations.

Play the opening of No.103, with its sinuous winding melody for bassoon and lower strings followed by violins paired with violas complimented by divided winds with a closing chord, for a presage of Berlioz’s extended melodic lines and orchestration. Wonderful pianissimo passagework and a bravura ’Menuetto’ follow Beecham’s initial doleful gait for the second movement and the swagger of the reply motif. It is though the magnificent ’Finale’ that really takes the plaudits. As a piece of writing this movement emulates the final movement of Mozart’s ’Jupiter’ Symphony: inventiveness and perfection of scoring taking pride of place.

Beecham was a great one for emulating Sir Henry Wood’s Proms. I recall a Sunday night RPO concert of Wagner ’bleeding chunks’ for Sir Thomas peering over the top of his spectacles, mouth slightly open, hissing at the orchestra whenever he wished them to play really quietly.

It is a great pity that little live Wagner is available under his direction – only a complete Tristan und Isolde and excerpts from Die Meistersinger and Götterdämmerung.

The Flying Dutchman Overture is a no-nonsense reading, keen-edged strings and whooping horns taking command for long stretches. Admire too the cor anglais playing of Leonard Brain (Dennis’s brother); the religioso ending is beautifully done. In the Mastersingers excerpts Sir Thomas vitalises each selection with his own brand of theatricality. The Parsifal excerpt is never allowed to linger, either. I wish that Beecham had included ’Dawn’ as part of ’Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’. The ’Funeral Music’ is well done although my favourites are still Furtwängler and Albert Coates. Their interpretations had such menace from their respective brass sections, which tend to be rounded off into eloquent statements in this rather respectful Beecham version. Turn to Lohengrin and the picture is different – the violins, that superb foursome of wind principals and the whole of the brass covering themselves in glory. Good transfers.

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