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Pristine Classical
Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3

Beecham At The Royal Festival Hall
Volume 1
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 101 in D major, Hob. 1:101, The Clock [27:13]
Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphony in G minor [26:44]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
L’enfant prodigue: Cortege et Air de Danse [4:45]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 1959
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC502 [58:42]

Volume 2
Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-47)
Die schöne Melusine, Overture, Op. 32 [10:50]
Giorgio GHEDINI (1892-1965)
Musica da Concerto per Viola ed Archi [23:37]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 [36:16]
Frederick Riddle (viola)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 1959
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC504 [70:43]

Volume 3
John ADDISON (1920-1998)
Carte Blanch, Ballet Suite [17:27]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 [33:49]
Charles Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Dance of the Priestesses (Sampson and Delilah) [2:56]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Juliet’s Dream (Romeo and Juliet) [2:37]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 1959
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC507 [56:49]

These performances were recorded monaurally by the BBC transcription service at two concerts given on 25 October and 8 November 1959. They are not presented here in order of performance: a certain amount of “juggling” has been used to fit all the material onto three compact discs.

Our era is one in which, to a degree, musical performance is informed by intellectualism and didacticism, with results which some would regard as tending towards the arid. Those of that opinion will find it a pleasure to step back in time and listen to a musician like Sir Thomas Beecham, who believed that music should, above all, be enjoyed by performers and listeners alike. Even when the head disagrees with something Beecham is doing, the heart may compel you to go along with it.

So it is with this performance of Haydn’s Clock Symphony. There are no concessions to ‘scholarship’ here: instead, a largish orchestra of modern instruments plays with immense wit, polish, grace, warmth and vitality. In this performance, the rhythm of the first subject of the second movement (Andante) mimics the ticking of a clock to a tee, while the third movement’s Menuet and trio unmistakeably conjures up an image of an eighteenth century court with elderly courtiers circling in the dance. Beecham takes 7:38 over this movement whereas in his EMI studio recording (reviewreview - review) he is slower at 8:23. I think his more expansive approach in the studio enabled him to characterise the music even more effectively, but the advantage is only slight. Textually ‘inauthentic’ Beecham undoubtedly is, but throughout both performances the spirit of the music is evoked with rare success.

Lalo believed in ‘pure’ music over descriptive music. His G minor symphony has been accused of being dull and undistinguished, without the sparkle of his Symphonie espagnole. The G minor work had been virtually forgotten before Beecham took it up and recorded in Paris for EMI in the same year as this concert performance. It appears there was only one prior recording, and there have been only around five since. Certainly, a mood of melancholy pervades much of the work, despite three of its four movements having fast tempo markings. Beecham conveys this and other moods convincingly and, even if the music is not particularly memorable, he has almost certainly given the work the best possible advocacy.

The overture Die schöne Melusine, with a duration of nearly eleven minutes, is rightly played as a substantial work. This performance is almost a minute longer than Beecham’s EMI studio recording and the expansion enables him to do even better justice to the work’s majestic or dramatic passages. The BBC’s live sound, however, cannot compete with EMI’s high-fidelity stereo production.

Giorgio Ghedini was a composer of eight operas, a symphony, orchestral and chamber works. The viola concerto is an extended piece of continuous music, which seems to bear out the view that he had a very personal musical language which combined modern and ancient (renaissance and baroque) styles. As a newcomer not just to this concerto but to Ghedini’s entire body of work, I find myself without a basis for comparison when assessing this performance. Nevertheless, Frederick Riddle’s viola sounds assured and beautiful and Beecham’s conducting makes the work flow naturally and inevitably.

Dvořák’s glorious Eighth Symphony is precisely that: a symphony and it must be said at once that Beecham’s interpretation is decidedly rhapsodic and un-symphonic. It is also extremely exciting. The conductor at times permits himself quite pronounced tempo variations within and between movements. The Adagio is very slow and expressive and, of course, beautifully played. The Finale (Allegro ma non troppo) has considerable tempo fluctuations (as did Istvan Kertesz’s in his LSO recording for Decca - review) and ends with a thrilling dash to the finish line with the entire orchestra producing an enormous uproar which draws shouts of approval from the audience. I think Bruno Walter’s steadier approach to this movement (in his Sony stereo recording) does better justice to the structure and is thus ultimately more satisfying, but there is no denying the excitement Beecham generates. His is one of those performances where, as I’ve suggested, the head says no but the heart says yes.

Pristine’s documentation names the composer of Carte Blanch as simply ‘Addison’, without a given name. The 2012 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music lists no composer with that family name. Film music enthusiasts may not have been baffled, but others may have been. In fact, there were at least two Addisons in English music, both named John: one lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the one represented in these recordings was a twentieth century musician who composed mainly for the screen.

Addison’s idiom has been likened to that of his teacher, Gordon Jacob. The Carte Blanch ballet, which was written for Sadler’s Wells, was a venture into the theatre which was premiered at the 1953 Edinburgh Festival. Its suite has been described as “a light-hearted divertissement, where anything goes”, possessing “sophisticated high spirits”. It still sounds slightly ‘modern’ and its quirkiness is well conveyed by Beecham and an alert RPO. The prelude contains a rapid, extended passage for xylophone which the RPO percussionist delivers with impressive virtuosity. At two moments in the performance, the audience erupts into laughter and it is impossible to say whether this is due to the music or to some visual humour on the part of the conductor. Perhaps someone reading these lines was at the concert and could enlighten us via the message board. We would be the poorer for not knowing.

And so to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The slow introduction to the First Movement is phrased with the utmost subtlety and beautifully played. It promises the performance of a lifetime but, alas, what follows is not quite that. The Vivace sets off at, and maintains, a terrific speed which is faster than a dozen or more well-known performances in my collection. Beecham ‘live’ is also faster than his own EMI stereo recording (review) of roughly the same period: 10:13 compared to 10:32. The RPO displays its staggering virtuosity by keeping up with their conductor without noticeable loss of standards. Inevitably, the interpretation underplays Beethovenian qualities such as spaciousness and gravitas, which you may think important, even in this mainly cheerful and ebullient symphony.

Beecham’s speeds are more moderate in the remaining movements, although his timing for the entire work is almost two minutes faster than for his EMI performance: 33:49 compared to 35:32. At the RFH, Beecham clearly saw the work as a light, fleet-of-foot affair, rather than one calling for much in the way of majesty or emotional nuance (the slow introduction excepted). As with the Dvorak performance, there is undeniable excitement but, for this listener, excitement alone in Beethoven is not enough (and can sometimes be over-done).

The short pieces by Debussy, Gounod and Saint-Saëns were encores given at one of the concerts (those from the other concert were, apparently, lost). The Dance of the Priestesses is an object lesson in Beecham’s skill in the subtle characterisation of a superb miniature and the other two pieces are almost equally enjoyable.

While accepting that Pristine has done the very best for these recordings that current technology permits, it must be acknowledged that the sound quality throughout remains rather typical of the BBC at this period: a somewhat tubby bass contrasts with a rather harsh and attenuated treble, producing a feeling of boxiness. This impression is confirmed when the Haydn, Mendelssohn and Beethoven recordings are compared to their EMI equivalents from the second half of the nineteen-fifties: EMI offers high fidelity stereo sound which still falls fairly easily on the ear; the BBC, alas, does not.

Beecham enthusiasts will want to add these recordings to their collections. Others will derive pleasure from nearly all the performances, but should tread warily if sound quality is a consideration. And no one should part with their EMI recordings.

Rob W McKenzie

Previous review (Volumes 1 & 2): Jonathan Woolf

 

 




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