Beecham – From Arnell to Zémire (Sony Classical): Bill Newman continues his survey of Sony’s Sir Thomas Beecham issues. Bill has reviewed every CD in this series for The Classical Source – full links to which are available from this article

0 of 5 stars

Sir Thomas Beecham
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Punch and the Child, Op.49
The Triumph of Neptune – Suite (Philadelphia Orchestra)
The Tempest – 14 movements selected from Suites 1 and 2, Op.109/Nos.2 & 3
Recorded 1950 (Arnell), 1952 (Berners) and 1954

Symphonic Variations, Op.78
Le Coq d’Or – Suite
Recorded 1951 (Rimsky), 1953 (Dvorák) and 1954

Harold in Italy, Op.16 (William Primrose – viola)
Zémire et Azor – Pantomime (Air de Ballet)
Timoléon – Overture
Le Trésor Supposé – Overture
La Chasse de Jeanne Henri – Overture
La Vierge – The Last Sleep of the Virgin
Recorded in 1951 (Berlioz), 1953 (Méhul & Massenet) and 1954

Incidental Music to Lord Byron’s Manfred
Recorded 1954 and 1956

Orchestral Favourites
Bizet, Boccherini, Chabrier, Mozart, Offenbach, Rossini, Johann Strauss II, Suppé
Recorded between 1950-53

Reviewed by: Bill Newman

Reviewed: March 2004
CD No: See below

There are numerous conductors who, having had early successes with certain composers or periods in music, have shifted their focus to opera, new music or original instruments, hoping that coteries of admirers applaud their versatility. The performance of a gargantuan amount of music, where you never stay in one groove long enough, means that mediocrity is unlikely to set in. Radio and TV announcers, critics and magazines can all get together to convert listeners to a truncated way of thinking, hearing and believing.

I don’t think that Sir Thomas Beecham’s long and illustrious career took shape quite along those lines. I studied an old handbill in London’s Wigmore Hall recently with a caption which was worded something like, “One of our most promising and gifted young conductors, Mr Thomas Beecham will present a series of concerts which will contain unusual French and Italian orchestral rarities…”. Here was a musician who wished to exhaust monies at his disposal to perform music he had sought out, admired and particularly wished to introduce to a steadily growing audience of devotees, thus improving their taste and outlook.

Over the years he succeeded in his task admirably, inevitably upsetting a few people verbally en route – but who probably needed waking up – then falling periodically into debt, and renewing his efforts once he was solvent again to create new orchestras and opera companies. Beecham’s fastidious attitude to the Arts generally, his admiration of fine literature, and insight into the collective habits, fascinations, foibles and ways of life in other European countries – all would continually stand him in good stead. Concert series with astute music-making amassed for Beecham colleagues who worked alongside him – including those who admired, even if they failed to worship. Would any dare to deny the power or pattern of his achievement? This included the preparation of programmes, recordings, and the support of fellow musicians.

Beecham would be totally dismissive of the hype and euphoria that distorts the proper assessment of music. Look on him as a musical missionary or a talented amateur of genius. His recordings – both live and commercial – bear testament to his unique contribution to the musical scene.

A marvellous French collection transports me back to the early 1950s.The languorous hero, the portrayal of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy returns with the wonderful viola solos of William Primrose, who leaves a small blemish in the form of a tiny squawk against French horns during the Serenade (at 4’23”). Gary Moore’s fresh-sounding transfer enhances one’s admiration, but one should not ignore the Edinburgh Festival performance with Frederick Riddle on BBC Legends, which is even more exciting in the final Orgy. Koussevitzky’s, Munch’s and Bernstein’s versions are eclipsed. The couplings (suggestive of those early Wigmore appearances) are Grétry’s Pantomime, each restatement of phrase starting at a slower tempo, three of Méhul’s overtures in which listeners will detect influences of Gluck, Weber, Mozart and the young Beethoven, and the last, La Chase, is a forerunner to Berlioz’s Royal Hunt & Storm.Massenet’s The Last Sleep of the Virgin sends us serenely to bed.

A dazzling programme of Orchestral Favourites features Suppé’s Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna, which sweeps the boards at the close, Johann Strauss’s Morning Papers Waltz – listen to the Viennese lilt – Bizet’s The Fair Maid of Perth Suite, Boccherini’s Overture in D and Rossini’s La Cambiale di Matrimonio Overture. Then Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann – six movements released for the first time – a Mozart dance and march, and ending with Chabrier’s Espana. Note the unhurried readings. Beecham has only to demonstrate the phrasing directions to his players, whereupon they cover themselves in glory.

Dvorák’s Symphonic Variations would normally be the province of Talich, Kubelik and Ancerl. So how does Beecham eclipse them? By the poetry of his phrasing, and with dancing tempos and dashing climaxes. Beecham excises one variation, but make a special note of David McCallum’s violin solo. Balakirev’s Tamara outclasses Gauk, Monteux and Svetlanov in idiomatic impressionism, and only Issay Dobrowen is Sir Thomas’s equal in The Golden Cockerel.

Beecham was a lifelong champion of Sibelius. The earlier LPO Sibelius Society recordings soon made that point, but the 14 numbers from the original 10-inch Philips LP afford us valuable glimpses of the incidental music to Shakespeare’s play. (This recording has previously appeared on CD, under license from CBS Special Products, on EMI CDM 7 63397 2; Sony date it 1954, EMI 1955.) There is an uncanny stillness contained in these miniatures, which suddenly start into life under Beecham’s direction. When The Storm erupts we are transported to Hell! Richard Arnell’s music found its fondness and ardency under Beecham’s spreading wings, but not always with good fortune when Beecham hired the Royal Festival Hall for a whole evening of Arnell’s music with the Royal Philharmonic that played to a nearly-empty house. Punch and the Child could find its American counterpart in Menotti’s The Medium. Lord Berners’s The Triumph of Neptune, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, however, with its crazy quips, turns of phrase and sauciness, delighted Beecham’s humour buds. Look on it as being Chaplin-esque.

The fifth and final record is Schumann’s Manfred, and my courage tended to fail me. At a live Beecham performance of Manfred, with George Rylands narrating, come the close there was an ominous silence from the audience, whereupon Beecham reluctantly made an apology for “resurrecting” the piece from its state of oblivion – “Maybe, ladies and gentlemen, we have made a mistake”. Then he walked off the platform with some degree of alacrity. But his fondness for the work lead to repeat performances, one of which had Valentine Dyall (“The Man in Black”) speaking. This score does grow on one and Beecham pads it out with other Schumann pieces. Laidman Browne, Jill Balcon, Raf de la Torre and David Enders bring back memories of the good old days! The whole thing is treated with loving care.

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