Notes and Editorial Reviews
Some more buried Beecham treasure – and it’s pure gold!
The Somm label has unearthed some more buried Beecham treasure – and it’s pure gold!
This latest issue in their Beecham series will be of particular interest to Beecham devotees because it includes two pieces – the D’Indy and the Saint-Saëns – of which, so far as I know, the eminent conductor made no commercial recording. Furthermore, though he took the Grieg piece into the studio I think the resultant recording is, perhaps, one of his lesser known ones.
The Berlioz overture was a staple of the Beecham repertoire, though he didn’t conduct it until 1946, according to Graham Melville-Mason’s valuable notes. Thereafter he performed it some sixty times and he made three recordings of it. The present performance is full of vim and vigour – though there’s also light and shade at the appropriate points in the score. Beecham whips up some real excitement in this reading and the last couple of minutes in particular are tremendous.
I have to confess that I didn’t know the Grieg at all. Mind you, I can take a little comfort from the fact that Sir Thomas seems to have come to it late as well; he only took it up in 1955 and, in fact, he performed it on only three occasions – all in that year – making a studio recording in between these live performances, of which the present one was his second. The work in question was written in 1890 for two pianos and the orchestral version was made between 1900 and 1905. I wouldn’t say it’s a neglected masterpiece but it is an engaging piece and just the sort of music that Beecham could do so well, bringing it to life. In this performance the RPO woodwind section plays with great finesse and the string choir is on pretty good form too. Beecham characterises the music very nicely and the subdued, tender ending is quite magically done.
Beecham played music by d’Indy from quite an early stage in his conducting career and he first conducted
La Forêt Enchantée (1878) in 1907. Subsequently he met the composer. This particular piece remained in his repertoire until 1951; indeed, the last time he gave it in public – in a concert he gave with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - was the day before he made this studio recording, also with the BBC SO. The recorded sound is not as good as on the other pieces in this collection, as Somm admit in the booklet. There is some distortion at times but, nonetheless it’s very valuable to have this unique example of Beecham in this work. He imparts plenty of drive and is clearly committed to the score; furthermore he’s alive to the poetic passages. Despite the sonic limitations it was well worthwhile issuing this performance.
It’s a little surprising, perhaps, that Beecham never recorded the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony, a work that one might feel to be tailor-made for him. However, the symphony was neither as well-known nor as popular in Beecham’s day than has subsequently become the case. He first performed it in1913. On that occasion the composer was present and there’s a delicious anecdote about that performance in the booklet – for once Beecham was on the receiving end, though he delights in telling the story nonetheless! The symphony has its detractors but I like it, especially when it’s given with panache and empathy, as here.
The RPO strings are in fine fettle in the first movement and there’s also some sparkling woodwind playing to enjoy. I don’t know why Somm don’t track the second movement separately - it starts at track 4, 10:37. Like most conductors Beecham rather ignores the ‘poco’ element of the
Poco adagio tempo indication and takes the solemn theme broadly, a decision that the richness of the RPO strings vindicates. The organ is well integrated into the ensemble sound. The recorded sound may not be as sumptuously integrated as in a modern digital recording but we can still enjoy a fine, affectionate performance – note how Beecham gets the orchestra to play
con amore (especially 17:46 – 19:09). The third movement is ebullient and full of Beecham verve. The booklet notes relate how great care was taken to get the sound of the Festival Hall organ just right and in view of that the great chord that opens the finale is something of a disappointment; it sounds like an electronic instrument. How much this is a reflection of the instrument and how much it’s to do with the age of the recording I’m unsure. In fairness, I suspect it’s more the latter and when, just for interest, I compared this recording with a live Boston Symphony Orchestra performance given just a few months earlier I found there wasn’t much to choose between the two. When the organ joins in the Big Tune (1:09) it makes a more positive impression. The finale as a whole is hugely enjoyable – the old maestro conducts with vigour and flair – and I enjoyed it very much even if the recording does get a bit overloaded at the end.
As I’ve hinted, the recordings do have their limitations. Tubby-sounding timpani are a frequent feature and the strings sound a bit glassy at times in the Berlioz overture. The d’Indy suffers from some distortion, as previously mentioned. Overall, however, the recordings have come up remarkably well given that they’re nearly sixty years old. Forget any sonic limitations: what really matters here is that we have four fine and very enjoyable Beecham recordings, including two significant additions to his discography. Beecham admirers, what are you waiting for?
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International