Sir Thomas Beecham
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Te Deum, Op.22
Le chasseur maudit
SONY CLASSICAL SMK87964
Recorded in 1951 (Franck) and 1954
Tragic Overture, Op.81
Ruy Blas Overture, Op.95
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)
The Hebrides (Fingals Cave) Overture, Op.26
Manfred Overture, Op.115
SONY CLASSICAL SMK87965
Recorded between 1950-56
Eventyr (Once upon a time)
Hassan Incidental Music
Koanga Closing Scene
SONY CLASSICAL SMK87966
Recorded between 1951-56
Symphony No.36 in C, K425 (Linz)
Symphony No.38 in D, K504 (Prague)
Symphony No.39 in E flat, K543
SONY CLASSICAL SMK87963
Recorded between 1950-55
Karelia Suite Alla marcia
Scènes historiques Opp.25/1 & 66
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
SONY CLASSICAL SMK87798
Recorded between 1950-52
Reviewed by: Bill Newman
Reviewed: October 2003
CD No: See below
In a world of weird tastes and perverse opinions, I become increasingly amused by so-called music-lovers who have nothing favourable to impart about the musical virtues of Britain’s greatest conductor – Sir Thomas Beecham.
Without exception, none of these detractors appear to be old enough to have attended any of his concerts. A firm believer of the true saying, “To hear is to believe”, there is almost as much to glean about Beecham’s Art of Music-making while watching his facial glances of appreciation towards players, together with the sudden, occasional glare of disapproval when something went wrong. Then, one had to accept a stick technique that comprised an amalgam of meaningful gestures. These usually comprised emotional vibrations of the baton linked to typical, sudden prods to emphasise rhythmic accents, followed by graceful gyrations and curving motions of hands, wrists and fingers, all finely balanced and coupled to customary downbeats where the tip of the stick almost touched the floor. The musical pulse radiated roughly from shoulder height to waist level.
These are impressions firmly rooted in the mind from that great period of Maestros I enjoyed observing during the 1950s-60s, unequalled in their integrity and a sense of musical rightness, which leaves a present generation of young conductors literally grasping for straws. Orchestral musicians watched Sir Thomas. Those bushy eyebrows, glinting eyes and rogueish beard held complete sway.
Recently I had the pleasure of experiencing total recall as I watched and listened to two videos of concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Beecham on 13th and 20th March 1960.
On Warner Music Vision 8573-84095-3 Haydn’s Symphony No.102 and Mozart’s Prague Symphony (No.38) reveal more about composer-inspired vision than any of the dehydrated, fabricated contortions forced upon listeners today. Even the mean-faced Chicago personnel start smiling during the Prague’s finale.8573-84096-3 contains a variety of lighter fare, Beecham favourites by Mendelssohn, Delius and Saint-Saëns, and Beecham’s arrangement of Handel, Love in Bath. Whilst taking note of the subtle gradations, passions and whimsies, you will be aware that the conductor’s stance remains unchanged throughout, magical combination of spontaneous persuasion that becomes allied toprofessional commitment on the highest level.
Old friends make their welcome re-appearance in the latest batch of Beecham Royal Philharmonic recordings, skilfully re-transferred onto compact disc by Gary Moore. Collectors will also enjoy the written commentaries by Graham Melville-Mason and others.
The sessions for the Berlioz (1953/54) started on a very cold day at Hornsey Parish Church. Organist Denis Vaughan remembers Beecham with a wreath on his head dancing through the aisle towards the podium. This magnificent work, hardly inferior to the more celebrated Requiem, receives the interpretation of a lifetime. Alec Robertson wrote of “…this splendid and glowing performance of a work that contains some of Berlioz’s finest music…”
The Franck piece, his most pictorial, has to stand next to Charles Munch’s reading. Munch plays it for all it’s worth, which gains momentum and culminates in an overwhelming climax.
In Mozart, I like to think of Beecham alongside his friendly rivals Bruno Walter and Pablo Casals. In contrast to Walter’s poetic pointing, Sir Thomas is dramatic and forthright in the Linz Symphony. There is nothing suggestively Czech in Sir Thomas’s reappraisal of the Prague; instead there is the joy of instrumental interplay with a preview of the finale of the Jupiter Symphony in the fugal writing of the last movement. Walter is altogether gentler. Beecham’s Symphony 39 in E flat is both proud and majestic during the slow introduction, which leads into episodes of spiritual grace and richly scored romanticism for the rest of the movement. Elsewhere, he finds poetic refinement in the slow movement, a dancing lilt for the third and ebullience in the finale. Walter runs him close. Casals, by contrast, discovers new dramatic vistas.
Beecham does not observe first, second or final movement repeats.
If one had to choose prime examples of how to make music sound exalted and colourful, without forcing the pace – as others do – to create superficial excitement, the programme of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann in Beecham’s interpretations stands head and shoulders over the rest.
Commentators still remark on inadequacies of Mendelssohn’s music based on certain superficialities in his makeup. The complete untruth of this statement, regarding the music itself, is shown-up by the many beauties of scoring. The constant delight of the Italian Symphony’s repartee is to be found in the scoring where the expertise of the RPO’s section-leaders shines forth. Beecham – who insisted that overtures should start off his concerts – would be ashamed at the neglect of these two Mendelssohn favourites. Here, the various elements in the dramas unfold with relevant changes of tempo and dynamics that never affect the overall pulse. The same is true of Schumann’s portrayal of Byron’s Manfred, yet the big surprise is the Brahms – never included in Beecham’s late concerts – where the tempo is absolutely constant. It results in a performance of heightened vision and stark tensions.
The reissue of the Sibelius Symphony has been long awaited. It represents Beecham at his most wilfully personal – brilliant in long stretches by his commanding selection and control of rubato in Sibelius’s long-drawn phrases. The finale overwhelms in a constant stream of orchestral surges; Beecham always finds an excuse for piling on extra tensions that finally reach bursting point. The second movement is strings, winds and brass at their most eloquent, but the third almost comes to grief. If one compares Beecham in this work with Anthony Collins’s very different, faster, straightforward account recorded by Decca, the LSO’s timpanist was dead in tune and clear-sounding. Beecham’s Lewis Pocock sounds as if he is playing on a dustbin lid. The sound is fuzzy in the extreme. During the fugal writing of the central section, Beecham and his wind players go completely out of control – a strange lapse of concentration that merited a re-take.
The Scènes historiques – the last movement, Festivo, of Op.25 and the whole of Op.66 (played in reverse order!) – is maybe slightly second-rate Sibelius, but Beecham devotes constant attention to the ardency, charm and excitement. The Karelia Suite March has always been a firm favourite – no one did it better!
In the Delius collection, Eventyr is Beecham at his most supreme. This masterly work, where events and orchestration are constantly changing, Sir Thomas called “a highly interesting piece”. Trevor Harvey, writing for Gramophone, described it “as beautiful as anything Delius ever wrote”. Based on some of Asbjornsen’s popular tales, with their poignant, somewhat dated charm, one waits expectantly for the two choruses of male ’yells’ halfway through.
An Arabesk, to words by J P Jacobsen, is just as compelling from an orchestral standpoint, but the Danish text with its nebulous meaning is reason for its neglect. Hassan, with its popular Serenade and that endless “We take the Golden Road to Sarmarkand”, chanted over and over, is the most atmospheric of scores. It is easy to hear where other composers like Peter Warlock, Eric Coates, Cyril Scott and John Ireland cottoned on to its hidden beauties. Koanga complete was on the EMI label, or live from Sadler’s Wells, under Sir Charles Groves. Beecham’s closing scene is marvellous, of course!
A few typos in Sony’s general presentation is a shame – (and also that the opening timpani measures of Sibelius 1 are missing! – Ed.) – and it should be noted that the above Delius CD is now packaged with Beecham’s other Sony Delius (a total of five CDs) on SX5K87342.