Sir Thomas Beecham conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Isaac Stern (violin)
Rustic Wedding Symphony, Op.26
Handel adapted Beecham
The Faithful Shepherd
Recorded 1950 (Handel) and 1952
Symphony No.1 in D
Symphony No.2 in B flat
Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Recorded 1951 (Symphony No.8) and 1953
The Nutcracker Suite
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.17 (Little Russian)
Recorded 1953 (Symphony) and 1954
Reviewed by: Bill Newman
Reviewed: April 2003
CD No: See below
In the days of long-play records, Beecham enthusiasts were spoilt for pleasure in their choice of recordings on either the British Columbia or Philips labels. At some time during the 1950s, Columbia’s Classical Division at Great Castle Street, London W1 had relayed the news that the great conductor had fallen out with Walter Legge, after which the staff of the Philips Record Division at Stanhope Place found themselves suddenly confronted with the fierce countenance of Sir Thomas, his goatee beard bristling up and down as he announced to their front office reception that “I will be recording for you from now on!”
Suddenly those treasured Columbia 33CX discs became collector’s pieces, then a new batch of Philips ABLs quickly appeared in the New Release columns to prove, yet again, that aside from the international contingent of maestros, Beecham still claimed the greater attention from sales marketing personnel in both record companies.
Schubert’s symphonies 1 and 2 appeared on both top- and mid-price Classical Favourites during those exciting years, while the better-known ’Unfinished Symphony’ continued to command regular sales coupled with Beethoven’s Symphony No.8, until Philips re-coupled it.
The youthful symphonies were never aired at concerts. Nobody could be bothered except Beecham, who foresaw that their melodic and rhythmic skills and beautiful orchestral colours would particularly enhance the virtuoso skills of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s woodwind principals. Gwydion Brooke, bassoon and Terence McDonagh’s poised oboe playing can be heard to advantage, blending superbly with their colleagues – and you will discover different ideas, settings and developments expressed through each. They sound as fresh today as they did when they were first released 50 years ago.
But the absence of first movement repeats – likewise with Symphony 8 – is a cross one has to bear with Sir Thomas. His international German and Austrian colleagues suffered from a similar lack of respect in these particulars; yet the drama, poetry and Viennese nuances are all magnificently measured and pointed – to make these readings unique. Only Eduard van Beinum and the Concertgebouw can compete, but their fleeting clarity is no challenge to Beecham’s lilting charm.
With the ’Unfinished Symphony’ others like Furtwängler, Walter, Mengelberg, Böhm and Jochum offer alternative readings, but such a masterpiece demands probing elucidation and expression.
Good transfers from copy tapes, somewhat lacking the bloom of the originals.
The Faithful Shepherd is one of several Suites of Handel dance movements that Beecham personally selected for the delight of his concert audiences and record collectors. The other Rustic Wedding Symphony is one of the totally unexpected gems from the rare repertoire of a largely unknown composer – except, perhaps for a little performed but charming Violin Concerto.
No one will pretend that either is great music, but Beecham makes them sound like masterworks in every respect. Beecham boasted – quite correctly at the time – that he helped to popularise Handel again, following a rapid falling off of interest over a couple of centuries when tastes and styles underwent the extreme vagaries of the romantic movement, and nations fought each other for greed and supremacy. Their ’re-creator’ would alter the order of movements according to his whims and fancies, but the deftness, dry wit and loving care remained intact. Minus Beecham today, this brand of joyful music-making has gone from our concert halls, and people’s senses of humour have turned into a pretentious mishmash of second-class nonsense. Thank God for these recordings!
Nobody has been able to explain, either, the conductor’s gifts of taking a work into his orbit and sending his listeners away afterwards to whistle its tunes along the promenade to their heart’s content. Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding has all the right ingredients, but turning the obvious simplicity of continuing melodic charm into an embroidery of instrumental pleasures demands the devoted expertise of London’s finest contingent of orchestral personnel. At a wave of their Director’s magic wand, Goldmark’s bouncing Wedding March, Bridal Song, Serenade, In the Garden and Dance banishes all our trials and tribulations through a journey of eternal revelry. Jack Brymer’s clarinet solo is a thing of great beauty, and he tells loving stories of Beecham’s magic throughout their long association in his book.
I am continually amazed that Bernstein, Previn, Abravanel, Lopez-Cobos and others seem to be conducting a rather inferior work on their rival recordings, but Beecham’s guile and genius is a thing apart! Decent sound.
When confronted by the recordings that Sir Thomas made of music by Tchaikovsky – Francesca da Rimini, symphonies 2, 3 and 5, Waltz and Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, in particular, I wonder that I only heard him live direct a remarkable Pathétique Symphony.
His respect for the composer, especially as an orchestrator, was enormous, and this recording of the celebrated Nutcracker Suite is a supreme example of an unhurried, vibrant acknowledgement of Tchaikovsky’s glorious vein of theatrical achievements, and an object lesson of how to concentrate most on the musical ingredients whilst holding back on the physical excitement, except where absolutely necessary. The coda to ’Danse russe’ with its accelerations is a case in point. Every strand is noteworthy for expressive clarity and correct weight of tone. The pointed wit and sly turns of phrase make each of the ’Danses Charactéristiques’ absolutely perfect. Like the Russian Nikolai Malko, Beecham’s steady pace for the celebrated Waltz of the Flowers is exactly right.
Beecham occasionally shot himself in the foot, one must say, deliberately. I am quite content to go along with his solemn approach to Tchaikovsky’s ebullient ’Little Russian’ Symphony, a distinct contrast to Sir Eugene Goossens’s wonderful Cincinnati Symphony HMV recording, but the number of cuts Sir Thomas makes in the exciting Finale are insufferable. Why he does it is beyond me, as it destroys, almost entirely, the Russian dance element with its rapid changes of sequence and contrast.
The playing is extraordinarily fine, however.
Sir Thomas and American violinist Isaac Stern had an enormous respect for each other. I had the good fortune, at the time of these recordings, of hearing them perform together at the Royal Albert Hall one Sunday afternoon. The work was Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, which I had hoped they would record. Instead we had a slightly cut (in the last movement) version with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
During my 70s spell at CBS, London, I asked Stern for his impressions of those days. He told me that Beecham had expressed his complete pleasure, adding the following comments: “Mr. Stern, I don’t think you can bear to be separated from your wonderful violin. I expect you even take it along to the lavatory with you!” Isaac obliged with the absolutely serious photo (which he showed me) of himself seated on the throne at home, his great flannels at half-mast, playing his beloved Strad. He didn’t tell me of Sir Thomas’s reactions (if any) when he received a print. But I can imagine!
Memory proves that Stern’s interpretative way with both these concertos underwent a change for more noble aims and an extended dynamic range. In place of the celebrated later recordings with Ormandy and others, I recall magical live performances of the Sibelius with Previn and two performances of the Brahms, two years running, under Boult and Josef Krips, where the violinist’s E string broke during the first movement cadenza – something of a ’record’ that amused and amazed Stern when I mentioned it.
The purity of these vintage 1950s’ performances, however, represents the beauteous depths and high-flown sonorities of each work. You are never likely to attempt to make comparisons with, say, Heifetz at his finest – particularly in Sir Thomas’s accompaniments, live or on record – but that is the secret behind a conductor’s total understanding and matching to different virtuosi’s styles and the same respect for the music. Excellent transfers.