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Sir Thomas Beecham (1879- 1961) - Great Conductors of the 20th Century
CD 1
Gioacchino ROSSINI William Tell Overture
Antonín DVOŘÁK Legend No. 2
Richard WAGNER Das Rheingold - Entry of Gods into Valhalla
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART Divertimento No. 15
Frederick DELIUS Appalachia
Carl Maria von WEBER Der Freischütz Overture
CD 2
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Antar Symphony
Felix MENDELSSOHN Song without words Op. 102 Nos 2 and 3
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4
George Frideric HANDEL Amaryllis Suite - Sarabande
Edith Furmedge (soprano)
Margaret Field-Hyde (soprano)
Sylvia Patriss (alto)
Gwladys Garside (mezzo-soprano)
Walter Widdop (tenor)
George Chitty (tenor)
Theo Herrmann (bass)
Cuthbert Matthews (baritone)
Cuthbert Matthews (bar) (Delius)
Royal Opera Amateur Chorus (Delius)
London Philharmonic Orchestra (Rossini, Dvořák, Weber, Delius); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (rest)

Rec. mono and stereo (only I from Tchaikovsky) - 1934-1958. ADD
EMI CLASSICS/IMG 575938-2 [2CDs: ]

Beechamites will have to have this. After all this is two CDs packed with previously unpublished Beecham recordings. In fact the mono recording of movements 2-4 of Tchaikovsky 4 has been issued previously; the rest is new.

To cap things the set is documented exhaustively by Graham Melville-Mason who has already done Beecham proud in his stint with UK Sony's own Beecham series.

Steven Wright and John Pattrick, as Executive Producers, have done well by Beecham's memory. Listen to the earliest recording here to see what I mean. Although deep-down debris can be heard in the tactfully low level of crackle in the Tell Overture what holds the listener is Beecham's galloping élan. Beecham drives and his orchestra, in preternaturally unanimous splendour, deliver the goods. I might have heard more poetic introductions (from Reiner) but the sabres-drawn charge of the second section of the Overture is breath-taking. After a syrupy and treble down-played Legend comes the extremely immediate Entry of the Gods into Valhalla by Wagner with some emphatically 1940s British voices. The harp ostinato is cared for and shaped lovingly by John Cockerill against the stern voices of the Gods. The Mozart Divertimento 15 represents a composer Beecham championed consistently across 1300 performances and sixty years (1899-1960). This is stylish and fastidious big-band Mozart. Then comes another composer whose representation in Beecham's programmes began in 1908 and finished in his very last concert on 7 May 1960. Delius's Appalachia was recorded by Beecham in 1938 (HMV) and 1952 (CBS) and both of those studio events are still available. This version is unique, documenting a live concert with audience present in the Queen's Hall on 10 November 1935. It is startlingly clear and with a believable dynamic range - highly enjoyable and typically poetic with the slow-dripping magic of the Hassan echoes at the Var 8 misterioso being specially memorable. The baritone Cuthbert Matthews sounds distanced; a not disagreeable effect, adding to the enchantment of this piece. Delians will want to snap this up - not just a piece of history but with all the atmosphere of time travelling to an ambience now long gone and a hall that was to disappear in the 1941 Blitz. A similarly miraculous survivor is the Weber overture from the same concert. This romps along with abandoned excitement further goaded by typically hoarse Beecham shouts - one can hear where Beecham also drew his love of Berlioz - especially in Le Corsair and Roman Carnival (incidentally, do look out for the new Sony double of all Beecham's Columbia Berlioz - to be reviewed by Jonathan Woolf).

Beecham was approached in the early 1950s to make a series of recordings to be used as a backdrop for some television programmes. The Rimsky Antar (not otherwise recorded by beecham) is a relic of that project. It was made at the Shepperton Studios and is accorded a fine recording with an almost completely silent background. This is every bit as good, vital, delirious and rambunctious as Svetlanov's recordings, with forward contributions from a woodwind section strong on technique and character. Beecham cedes something to Svetlanov in the allegro risoluto (tr. 3 CD2) which is touched with a passing lassitude. Nevertheless this is a major discovery for those, like me, who consider Antar every bit the equal of Sheherazade. Then come the syrupy and rather treble-dull recordings of Norman Del Mar's orchestration of two of Mendelsssohn's Songs Without Words.

Several layers of gauze are swept aside and a decade of recording technology ushered in for the glinting recording of Tchaikovsky 4. This symphony was a Beecham favourite. He first conducted it in 1928. He made various mono recordings of the work in Paris in 1957 at the Salle Wagram. This Fourth has been strapped together from a lone stereo first movement made at the Kingsway Hall (itself the subject of a self-inflicted 'blitz' about ten years ago) on 16 April 1958 and three movements set down in mono in Paris on 8 October and 3 November 1957. A cracking performance is delivered even if it is an assemblage of bits and pieces from two disparate locales. Beecham's attention to dynamic variety is a joy, the door is opened to the character of each of the players, especially the woodwind who often in the first movement seem to lurch and drawl in an agreeably tipsy avuncular haze when Beecham is not bringing down the skies with black snarling brass. The acoustic changes noticeably for the last three movements which are bright yet warmly enveloped in the Salle Wagram. Some details leap out surprisingly closely including the triangle in the finale at 1.57 (CD2 tr. 10). Also superbly captured is the retort and blast of the trumpets and trombones. This is a Tchaikovsky 4 to place alongside Mravinsky's as a less hysterical but still deeply exciting alternative. In this symphony my thoughts turned to another exuberant colourist and audacious adventurer, Leopold Stokowski. While Stokowski delivered many brilliant recordings he was not as consistently successful as Beecham; certainly not in this symphony. Stoki's Vanguard recording of the Tchaikovsky 4 with the American Symphony is a lacklustre affair by comparison with Beecham's.

While the general listener may unfortunately be off-put by the absence of stereo (except in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky) there is some very special music-making here. This set is a stunner and bids us a civilised adieu with the soporific stately Sarabande - all grandeur and treacle. Here typically is a Beecham lollipop sending the listener away in contentment.

Rob Barnett

Great Conductors of the 20th Century

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