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Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Schumann
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Manfred Op 115 (1852)
Song of the Spirits – Gertrude Holt, Claire Duchesneau and Niven Miller
Incantation – Niven Miller, Glyndwr Davies and Ian Billington
Manfred – Laidman Browne
Witch of the Alps and the Phantom Astarte – Jill Balcon
Nemesis and the Spirit Genius of Manfred – Raf de la Torre
A Spirit and Abbot of St Maurice – Laidman Browne
A Young Chamois Hunter and Servant to Manfred – David Enders
BBC Chorus
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded 1954-56


Though Schumann’s is not a name that springs to mind when listing Beecham’s musical affinities his identification with Manfred was notable. Though he subjected the work to his characteristic rewritings and interpolations on the Beechamesque grounds of "cheering the thing up" – a process he’d begun with a staged version back in 1918 – this recording proves an eloquent and moving one. It’s as well to note the idiosyncrasies now: there are insertions behind some of the narrations, No. 11’s final twelve bars are excised and used instead to finish the second part; Beecham has orchestrated some keyboard miniatures, from Album für die Jugend and the last Abendlied from the Duets Op. 85, and spun them seamlessly into the score - appositely they were written fairly contemporaneously with Manfred; he also doesn’t stick strictly to the score order. I have to say that I found all such matters almost entirely persuasive and that they were exercised for reasons of expressive consonance and romantic spirit. It was a work that, for all his tomfoolery, clearly laid siege to Beecham’s Romantic self - solitary and Byronic as it clearly could be.

This dramatic poem – a monologue in the conductor’s word – finds the orchestra subservient to the verse drama. The concentrated power accumulates to the final death scenes with invincible and provoking sensibility. The interpolations are Beecham’s solution to the need for constant but subtle romantic continuity and flux. Right from the overture, recorded incidentally two years later after the rest of the set, we are aware of a sense of mutability, of unease, of dislocation – qualities Beecham unerringly finds. The weight of the performance falls on Laidman Browne, a role once also taken by Valentine Dyall, The Man in Black of radio fame. Browne is an actor of striking personality, sometimes a wee bit stagy (if you want to hear the word evil stretched to the farthermost possibilities of vowel elongation, listen to Browne in the First Act) and sounding somewhat older than I imagined would be the case (unlike I suspect the academic and eminence grise of the Marlowe Society recordings, George "Dadie" Rylands, who took part in many performances around this time but didn’t make the recording and would have lacked Browne’s oratorical fervour). David Enders is excellent as the Chamois hunter, suitably rustic in delivery and Raf de la Torre is sinuous and convincing as the Nemesis.

The Entr’acte that opens Act II is played with glorious freshness and open heartedness and that behind Manfred’s Act III monologue Glorious Orb! Is one of the most cherishable things in the whole work, no less than the Abendlied itself later in the same Act. It’s only in Music No. 14 that the brass bray balefully and only at the very end the chorus intones Manfred’s passing. Otherwise it is left to Beecham to mould and control the flow of this static philosophic drama with touches of greatness – colour and shade and shadow and moving understanding at the end. It’s a work for special moments, as he understands only too well.

The Sony transfer is excellent enough to preserve those evocative studio noises, bows on music stands and shuffling shoes – the ambience is especially noticeable, but only listening with headphones, behind Manfred’s Act II monologue Daughter of Air. If you have the transfer on Beecham 4 issued in 1991 you might notice that their transfer is fractionally more immediate than Sony’s with fine and clear sound. But it’s wonderful news that this Manfred is available once more because for all its quirks it still has the power to move.

Jonathan Woolf



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