Some more BBC Legends

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.8 in C minor (1890 version, edited Haas)

Halle Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
BBCL 4067-2

L’Arlesienne (Suite No.1; Menuet and Farandole from Suite No.2)
Irmelin – Scenes from Act II (ed. Beecham)
The Last Sleep of the Virgin
Tannhauser – Overture and Venusberg Music

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham
BBCL 4068-2
Polovtsian Dances (Prince Igor)
Eight Russian Folksongs (selection)
Night on the Bare Mountain
Poem of Ecstasy
Prelude in E flat minor, Op.34/14
1812 Overture

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski
BBCL 4069-2

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: July 2001
CD No: BBCL 4067-2, 4068-2 & 4069-2

Barbirolli’s Bruckner 8 is from May 20, 1970, a Royal Festival Hall performance, which proved to be JB’s last London concert; he died on July 29. Although he might not have been especially associated with Bruckner, JB conducted him quite often. This valedictory Eighth is characteristically humane and passionate. This isn’t a monumental C minor; rather it’s fiery and intense. Fallible the Halle certainly is, but it responds with devotion to JB’s exhortations. In the final analysis, this is not among the most poised or far-reaching of Bruckner 8s – the scherzo is too clipped – but it is a highly-charged, spontaneous, and carefully-charted account, one better to know than not.

Previously available on Carlton/BBC Radio Classics [15656 91922], this latest transfer is fuller and warmer than before, but the leaner first transfer allows wind, brass and some bass details to register more clearly.

I’m not what you might term a ’Beecham man’; indeed, I viewhim quizzically – or perhaps it’s his devotees’ blind-faith that poses the problem. That’s for another time. This CD is a document of Beecham at his finest. Tannhauser is keenly and dynamically detailed, with pomposity eschewed, and quietly rapt in the Venusberg section (I would have ditched applause here, which is ruinously intrusive). The Delius is magical, being innately phrased and sounded by Beecham.

Beecham’s authority in Delius finds a beguiling counterpart in the French items. His was not the lightest touch, nor did Beecham command the widest palette of colour, but he did bring an urbanity, a joy, and sheer enjoyment to such lovely things as L’Arlesienne and Massenet’s touching interlude. This is music-making of tenderness and ebullience (if a little too noisy in places), with some beautiful playing from the RPO, not least its famed woodwind principals. The mono sound (September, 1954, Royal Albert Hall) is excellent.

Stokowski’s June ’69 concert of Russian music (also RAH) – complete and in concert-order? – was no doubt an occasion. Depending on your point of view, and your sensibilities, there are some items here to either love or hate. Night on the Bare Mountain is, as the CD informs, ’rewritten and rescored’ by Stokowski. His extensions and cuts destroy the familiar structure that the composer, and Rimsky-Korsakov in his arrangement, left us. The re-orchestration is a mix of the predictable and imaginative; certainly it’s no improvement. Kamarinskaya is soulful and perky; the Prelude – sympathetically scored by Stokie – is dark, menacing and echt-Shostakovich. Pastorale has an appropriate Russian tang; the four Lyadov (sic) folksongs are respectively eloquent, witty and energetic, although ’Humorous Song’ is too fast.

The sound here is left-channel biased, which also affects the Polovtsian Dances, the slow opening of which requires some patience with both Stokie’s languor and a ’suspect’ chorus; Stokie’s changes to the score detract from the music. Of the other ’big’ pieces, 1812 is given ’the works’, plenty of drama, with the Band of the Grenadier Guards swelling the masses. If it all leaves me rather cold – and the distant, diffuse stereo sound certainly diminishes the spectacle – Stokie fans will no doubt disagree.

Poem of Ecstasy is the highlight, a charged and resplendent account, with some heroic playing, not least from the trumpets. But … BBC Legends already have this piece in its catalogue from Stokowski – a Royal Festival Hall rendition from a year earlier with the New Philharmonia (BBCL 4018-2, with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique). The RAH account is a little swifter (18’11” as opposed to 18’40”), surprisingly perhaps given the RAH’s more cavernous acoustic. The NPO account is more ingratiating, partly because the sound is more dynamic and better detailed; it’s also a fascinating opportunity to compare Stokie’s approach to this music a year apart with two of London’s orchestras. As for the new CD, I wonder if more of a concert-feel would have emerged if each item didn’t have several seconds of silence between it?

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