Beecham Supreme

0 of 5 stars
  • SONY CLASSICAL SMK89807 [68’ 59″]
  • Berlioz
    The Roman Carnival Op.9
    King Lear Op.4
    Waverley, Op.1
    Les Francs-Juges, Op.3
    The Corsair, Op.21
    The Trojans – Overture and March
    Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham

  • SONY CLASSICAL SM2K89432 (2CDs) [110’ 30″]
    A Mass of Life (with introductory talk by Sir Thomas Beecham)
    Rosina Raisbeck (soprano)
    Monica Sinclair (contralto)
    Charles Craig (tenor)
    Bruce Boyce (baritone)
    London Philharmonic Choir
    Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham
  • SONY CLASSICAL SMK89429 [75’ 59″]
    North Country Sketches
    In a Summer Garden
    Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham
  • SONY CLASSICAL SMK89430 [61’ 03″]
    Over the hills and far away Sea Drift*
    Paris (The Song of a Great City)
    Bruce Boyce (baritone)*
    The BBC Chorus*
    Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham
  • SONY CLASSICAL SMK89405 [58’ 28″]
    Cockaigne Overture
    Serenade for Strings
    Enigma Variations
    Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham
  • SONY CLASSICAL SMK89808 [70’ 10″]
    Symphony No.31 in D, K297 (Paris)
    Requiem, K626
    Elsie Morison (soprano)
    Monica Sinclair (contralto)
    Alexander Young (tenor)
    Marian Nowakowski (bass)
    The BBC Choir
    Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham
  • SONY CLASSICAL SMK89809 [71’ 07″]
    Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
    Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550
    Symphony No.41 in C, K551 (Jupiter)
    Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham

Reviewed by: Bill Newman

Reviewed: April 2002

A great conductor’s musical relationship with his players is based on complete knowledge and trust, but genius – that rarest of all gifts – carries belief way beyond professional know-how into the realms of speciality when the rules of convention are thrown aside. In their place come fresh ideas and challenges, new examinations of what lies behind the printed notes and expression markings, towards discovering the composer’s true style.

Orchestras are constantly urged to set improved excellence for themselves on a daily basis, yet they rely on the guy on the rostrum to set the pace and standards. As far back as the early 1960s, I remember Stanford Robinson expressing the view that the situation was gradually being reversed. Orchestral players knew a great deal about how to perform a wide range of repertoire, and any maestro coming unprepared should have his wits about him. Arrive well-prepared and full of confidence, but still be wary! That was his advice. He mentioned the demise of the conductor-martinet, with special reference to Toscanini, Mengelberg and Koussevitzky. But his face lit up when paying tribute to Sir Thomas Beecham, man and musician, who loved his players. And they, in turn, returned the compliment!

When my younger confreres express their doubts about Sir Thomas, without exception that is due to the fact that they never had the good fortune to attend any of his concerts. Beecham on TV or Video is no substitute, and I am reminded of Yehudi Menuhin’s interesting comment (also his introduction to a reprint of favourite Beecham stories) that watchers among concert audiences are just as important as listeners. A study of the conductor from behind, side on, or directly facing, foretells a multitude of performing trials, triumphs, moral, even immoral attitudes and opinions, and Beecham ’acted’ his role with the conviction of a Henry Irving or a George Bernard Shaw. The expressive result of his endeavours came not only through his varied arm and hand gestures, but mainly from certain facial expressions emanating from two shining orbs beneath bushy eyebrows, usually highlighted by his spectacles having descended somewhere near the tip of his nose!

Beecham’s written and spoken comments need to be taken with a pinch of salt, although strong elements of truth were always contained therein. Describing Elgar’s music as resembling the Victorian facade of St. Pancras Station, perhaps refers to the Symphony No.1 which Sir Thomas once cut down to 35 minutes – but he never dared repeat this blasphemy! Graham Melville-Mason’s wonderfully readable booklet note to the Elgar CD describes Beecham’s admiration of the British composer’s orchestration (for most of the time!) and his special efforts – verified by Jack Brymer (the RPO’s principal clarinet) – to make recordings to a standard that Elgar would have been proud to acknowledge.

Philips ABL3053 made quite a stir when the LP appeared in 1954. The frontispiece of photo portraits of “My Friends Pictured Within” should have been accommodated in the booklet. Beecham’s almost casual, laid-back style in Cockaigne, about half the speed of Elgar’s own first HMV recording with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, and more characterful than the composer’s remake with the BBC Symphony, is full of sly, sardonic and loveable impressions that appear as instrumental guises in the form of counterpoint figuration, or as part of the action when the brass band intrudes on the jollifications. Listen to the conductor’s increases of pace during the fugal writing that follows. Timpanist Lewis (Titch) Pocock, unlike any other performance, is instructed to stop playing and pause momentarily for breath, prior to the close in triple time. The effect is electrifying. A limpid start to the opening phrase of Serenade for Strings denotes Beecham’s working-plan during this charmingly nostalgic, old-fashioned score. But note the subtle rubato-quickenings to balance the moderations during the lovely melody. They sound so right, and by the utmost care the ’Larghetto’ movement’s wider intervals retain their sweet simplicity instead of becoming clogged down with overt sentimentality.

Apart from Harty, Boult, Barbirolli, Goehr, Sargent and Toscanini, there were no other recordings of the Enigma Variations in the early 50s with which to compare. Since then many have been added, but Beecham’s RPO version has always remained for me the most sympathetic, clear-cut and admirably balanced. Elgar requested him to record the piece in accordance with his own wishes in 1926, but only when recording standards had improved. Twenty-eight years later Beecham complied. Gary Moore’s transfers are quite satisfactory, and any oscillations due to tape stretch (evident on the LP reissue) are successfully masked. What a crying shame that Sir Thomas was not invited to record Elgar’s Falstaff. I heard at least one performance. Neville Cardus said that Beecham was the 20th-century reincarnation of that ebullient personage. His performance was like no other, to my mind.

Strolling into my new London office at CBS Records in June 1970, I was dismayed to discover various boxes of reel-to-reel copy tapes of Beecham recordings of Delius. A Mass of Life, Appalachia, North Country Sketches, Paris, Sea Drift … tape was spilling from spools, and no one was interested in their possible release. My subsequent argument with Paul Myers and Maurice Oberstein was, contrary to the importance of Bernstein, Boulez and Ormandy, that they should be scheduled immediately, and I proceeded to supervise the transfers onto LP. The sales figures clinched the case. The Delius Society, courtesy Felix Aprahamian, invited me to dinner where the special guests were Eric Fenby (Delius’s amanuensis) and the baritone Bruce Boyce. I recall Felix suggesting that EMI were wasting their time and money asking Sir Charles Groves to make his new recording of A Mass of Life – rather unfair as Groves had his own way of performing Delius’s music. Boyce praised the cushioned ease of Beecham’s conducting in both this work and Sea Drift, and those long strands of becalmed melody and harmony where his conducting mastery had to equal. The other ’Mass’ soloists are all distinguished, as is the London Philharmonic Choir.

Sea Drift has the excellent BBC Chorus pairing with Boyce’s rich-toned, steady baritone voice and fine diction. The final section is especially moving: “I am very sick and sorrowful”. Note how Beecham allows space for breathing during Whitman’s poignant text. Paris is an early work that contains the fulsome flavours of paintings by Renoir and Matisse, and has superb solo work. Over the hills and far away features the fated Dennis Brain, the whole taking on an aura of classic literature at its finest.

In North Country Sketches listen to the strange, astringent harmonies in ’Winter Landscape’, the gorgeous In a Summer Garden, and that epic piece – which somehow connects with Mark Twain and Stephen Foster – Appalachia, with certain vocal contributions missing in the listings.

Beecham successfully equalled, and more than occasionally surpassed French maestros Monteux, Paray and Munch in Berlioz. A ’lucky seven’ selection savours the debonair and the dastardly. Consider first Beecham’s earlier Roman Carnival recording with the London Philharmonic, English Columbia’s answer to Boult and the BBC Symphony on HMV. The RPO ’remake’ is in the same class, much more richly upholstered in all departments, but the original had Leon Goossens’s oboe playing. Both the early HMV and the later Columbia LP of King Lear are marvellous. Beecham’s pondering at the opening elicits a quickening of response – probably how Berlioz himself pictured that most disturbed, affectionate as well as remorseless of all Shakespeare’s old-man characters. The reading is a masterly study of controlled tensions and fever-pitch virtuosity. One revels in the joyous note spinning of Waverley, and wonders why it is never played nowadays. The Corsair was a Beecham speciality, its madcap exuberance never failing to delight, or disturb when the conductor chose to open with it in front of a post-war audience at the Royal Albert Hall, who had objected to Sir Thomas “escaping to America for tax reasons.”

Two discs of Mozart (are we also to expect Symphonies 36, 38 & 39?) reflect Sir Thomas’s life-long affection towards the “Great Master”. Beecham considered Symphony No.31 “the first great European Symphony, complete, with absolute mastery, with perfection of structure, with charm of melodic invention…” although he countered his enthusiasm when he addressed a Liverpool audience, “All I can say about it is that the Paris of his day must have been very different from the Paris of mine when I was a young man, or Mozart would certainly never have had the time or the inclination to write a symphony”. The coupling is the magnificent Requiem Mass, K626; Beecham’s only recording of it. I found myself unconcerned just where Süssmayer took over the completion; this is the most transcendent performance I know, an inspiration to singers and orchestra, alike.

The coupling of symphonies 35, 40 & 41 – the last being the earliest recorded, in 1950 – has all the attributes of Beecham the poet-lyricist. The ’Haffner’ was often a concert opener for Beecham. It kept everyone on their toes, as was the intention, but I do wish those all-important repeats, missing from the other two symphonies, were in place. Anyone who fails to be succumbed by the beauty of wind playing at its most sinuous, persuasive and provocative in the slow movement of No.40, or the superb instrumental balance during the final “fugue to end all fugues” from the ’Jupiter’, requires their head examining.

What a distinctive pleasure this brand of Mozart performance makes after listening to the pretentious titivations of ’original’ instruments going through their nebulous exercises of echoing outdoor garden parties surrounded by ornamental hedge borders – fine weather permitting – or in prissy indoor salons on other occasions. Another equally compelling, but far more dramatic, alternative approach to Mozart’s ’late’ symphonies comes from another master, Pablo Casals. By and large, and despite certain comments to the contrary, the transfers have been well done. One can try and imagine what the results would be re-transferring from more refined sounding originals. I assume Masters do not exist.

The ongoing cause for Beecham reissues remains all-important. Sony should now consider Sibelius Symphony No.1 with Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding Symphony, Beethoven 3, 6 & 8 and Handel’s Faithful Shepherd Suite, Tchaikovsky Symphony 2 and Nutcracker Suite, Rimsky-Korsakov Le Coq d’or Suite and Franck’s Le Chasseur Maudit. All are crying out for CD transfer.

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