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Sir Thomas Beecham – The Complete CBS Berlioz Recordings
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Te Deum Op 22 (1849)
Alexander Young (tenor)
Denis Vaughan (organ)
London Philharmonic Choir/Dulwich College Boys Choir
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Harold in Italy (1834)
William Primrose (viola)
Le Corsaire Overture Op.21
Les Francs-juges Overture Op.3
Les Troyens – Overture; March
Le Carnaval romain Overture Op.9
King Lear Overture Op.4
Waverley Overture Op.1
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded London, 1951-54. ADD
SONY CLASSICAL RECORDINGS 515300 2 [2 CDs: 79.28 + 78.23]

Sony has embarked on a mid-price reissue series of twofers, some of which are temptingly consolidated versions of items previously scattered throughout the catalogues. Others, such as Casals’ Marlboro Brandenburgs or Bruno Walter’s Mahler have been only intermittently available over the years, at least in the UK. And some, such as this Beecham set fulfil two functions, albeit frustratingly for those who have been following the Beecham reissue singles from Sony. It gathers together the complete Beecham CBS Berlioz recordings from 1951-54 and in doing so also consolidates two powerfully important performances recently issued in that Beecham Edition – the Te Deum and Harold in Italy. These were reviewed recently on this site – Sony Classical SMK91167 and Sony Classical SMK87964 respectively. In the interests of this review I’ll reprise some of my comments here and add something about the Overtures, previously unissued in the single edition of Beecham reissues.

Beecham performed Harold in Italy with three elite violists, all British. The earliest performance, so far as is known, was with Lionel Tertis in 1933, the middle ones were with William Primrose and the last with Frederick Riddle. Although no trace of his collaboration with Tertis now survives, fortuitously this commercial Primrose recording has been augmented recently by the 1956 Edinburgh performance with Riddle on BBC Classics. Comparisons are, as ever, instructive. In the 1951 Primrose recording the first movement repeat wasn’t taken – unlike the Edinburgh broadcast – and there are commensurate gains in tension in the live context. There are also losses: audience coughing, a few intonational concerns and a greater sense of the luminous orchestration in the studio. Riddle-Beecham is rather more full of nervous energy and declamatory élan in the opening, with the soloist slightly slower and more ruminative than Primrose-Beecham. In the second movement one is faced with the studio veil of exquisite tonal shading or the live performance’s infinitesimally greater sense of lyrical curve in the détaché writing. Of the two recorded sounds the Usher Hall is less ingratiating, the studio richer. Of the soloists Primrose is the more poised, but he had the advantage of studio retakes, though Riddle’s understanding of Beecham’s cantilever is distinguished.

Berlioz suggested a choir of eight hundred for his Te Deum – a work he characterised, albeit with a degree of understatement – as "colossal, Babylonian". He subsequently agreed to a reduction to one hundred and fifty thus probably cutting out most of the 600 choirboys he’d originally envisaged. For this 1953-54 recording Beecham and his forces made further necessary reductions – but we can nevertheless still hear the vaunting forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and Dulwich College Boys Choir in the acoustic of Hornsey Parish Church. Denis Vaughan, a bassist in the Royal Philharmonic at the time, plays the organ on this recording and Alexander Young is the splendid tenor. It should be noted that Beecham omitted the Praeludium and the final March for the Presentation of the Colours; otherwise everything is grandly conceived, gloriously and even heroically in place. Vaughan reminisces in Graham Melville-Mason’s witty and knowledgeable notes that Beecham walked down the aisle during the recording to listen to a playback whilst sporting a wreath on his head. It’s the kind of work – and the kind of performance – to encourage such Caesarean attitudes.

The Dulwich choir is pitched straight in; they maintain discipline and shape and sing with characterful tone. Beecham whips up the passionate conviction, the dramatic diminuendi, the fissure and passion as we near the outburst of Te aeternum Patrem. Vaughan tried to cultivate the characteristic French organ sound in Hornsey – he used four stops in the Tibi omnes, a mixture and three reeds – and he succeeds to a large degree. The climaxes here are judged splendidly but what most lingers in the mind is the orchestral conclusion to the movement where the string gravity, its weight calibrated to just limits, carries depth of concentration to the outermost limits. Dignare, Domine sees much antiphonal writing for choir and organ; the singing here is beautifully refined and raptly intense. To hear the Tu, Christe burst into measured life is also to appreciate the excellent balance between the constituent parts of the performance – no easy matter when, as here, Berlioz writes for full choir (boys choir and both divisions of the full choir), organ and orchestra. The climax is truly resplendent in Beecham’s hands and never grandiloquent or forced but rather a natural accumulation of musical direction. Young’s ever-attractive voice, plangent and expressive, is heard in the Te ergo quæsumus and he is matched by the choir’s delicacy behind him. The immutable tread of the concluding Judex crederis brings with it an intense uncoiling, the ostinati driving ever onwards, towards the truly blazing climax of brass, percussion and organ. Listening again to this recording, especially in proximity to those items recorded at Walthamstow Town Hall, makes me aware of something I really should have pointed out at the time of my first review, which is the occasionally constricted and generally unsatisfactory sound quality. The remastering can’t do much for it and it won’t spoil your enjoyment if you listen on its own terms but it’s something to consider.

Berlioz’s overtures were mainstays of Beecham’s repertoire, though some more than others. Le Carnaval romain was a calling card and he chose it to introduce two of his new orchestras, his eponymous Symphony Orchestra in 1909, full of youthful free spirits and led I believe by Philip Cathie; and the LPO in 1932, led by Paul Beard and with him George Stratton, Anthony Pini, Léon Goossens, Gerald Jackson, Reginald Kell et al (and I’ve not seen it for some time but wasn’t this the piece played in the famous newsreel taken at the time?). Le Corsaire entered his repertoire surprisingly late – 1946 – and Les Franc-juges seldom (only four traced performances in forty years). He concentrated on Waverley for just under a decade, from 1948 to 1956, and King Lear considerably more often, with a previous recording in 1947. The music from The Trojans – especially the March – was often played. Le Corsaire is every bit as powerful as I’d remembered it and Les Francs-juges is full of the most pensive wind writing and strong brass portent – though here the recording does sound a bit woolly. Marvellous colour though and layering of the string choirs. It’s noticeable listening to the March and the Overture to The Trojans that the latter has a mite less immediacy and presence. The RPO winds make their royal presence very apparent in Le Carnaval romain – and for the first time I heard the profound Berlioz influence on Smetana – though King Lear again suffers the Trojans effect and is just that bit less bright and forwardly miked. He may not have played Waverley in the early part of his career but by now Beecham had it in his bloodstream and he drives it with perky insouciance.

Graham Melville-Mason has expanded his ever-readable notes for this issue and tells you all you need to know. Beecham meanwhile gives you all you need to hear.

Jonathan Woolf

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