The Beecham Collection – Brahms, Bax & Strauss

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Brahms
Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a [Variations on a Theme of Haydn]
Bax
The Garden of Fand
Strauss
Don Quixote – Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Op.35

Bax and Brahms (preceded by an Introductory Talk by Sir Thomas Beecham) recorded on 30 March 1949 in BBC Studio (sic); Strauss recorded on 22 August 1956 in Usher Hall, Edinburgh


Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach

Reviewed: August 2007
CD No: SOMM-BEECHAM 21
Duration: 78 minutes

Available many moons ago on a Beecham Society LP, Brahms’s St Anthony Variations makes a marvellous curtain-raiser to this most welcome Somm triptych. Beecham’s is an uncommonly lissom and excitingly purposeful conception, exquisitely phrased (try the gorgeous presentation of the theme itself and truly ‘Grazioso’ Variation VII) and brimful of a song-like affection to make it all the more surprising that he never recorded the work commercially.

Bax’s The Garden of Fand emanates from the same March 1949 BBC Maida Vale Invitation Concert and (like the Brahms) is prefaced by a brief introductory talk by Sir Thomas. Interpretatively speaking, it’s an even more daringly flexible and wondrously rapt document than these artists’ distinguished HMV account from 15 months previously (currently languishing in the vaults, alas); time really does seem to stand still in that magical passage (from 12’41”) before the return of the faster music (and what ravishing wind playing here!). Granted, the bass clarinet enters a crotchet beat early at 16’44” just before the end – but don’t let that deter you from investigating this memorable document.

Strauss’s Don Quixote was another great Beecham favourite and this gloriously vital, big-hearted reading (captured live at the 1956 Edinburgh Festival) makes a valuable supplement to his legendary studio recording with Paul Tortelier from the previous decade. Pungent characterisation, abundant humanity and twinkling humour are very much the order of the day – in other words, it’s Beecham at his charismatic and involving best. There are particularly fine contributions from the principal clarinet (Jack Brymer presumably) and tenor tuba, while the strings soar unforgettably in the radiant Variation III (punctuated by one of the conductor’s inimitable ‘tow-path’ shouts at 5’43”). The soloists are drawn from the Royal Philharmonic’s ranks. Both John Kennedy (father of a certain fiddler by the name of Nigel) and Frederick Riddle acquit themselves with distinction; indeed, Kennedy’s is a most eloquent presence in the inimitably moving epilogue – I must confess the closing pages brought tears to my eyes. In sum, no Strauss nor Beecham aficionado should miss hearing this!

The sound here is a good deal more vivid and detailed than in the Bax and Brahms, but the transfers throughout have been very well made. All in all, a most heart-warming and enterprising anthology.

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