When I started collecting records the budget
label discs were still mono only and Decca’s Ace of Clubs label,
in particular, contained a wide range of performances conducted
by Eduard van Beinum, records which had been mainstays of their
catalogue since the arrival of the LP. After a dismal attempt
to convert some of these into "electronic stereo" on
a label called, with good reason, Eclipse, a whole generation
of performances disappeared into a limbo – too old to compete
with modern recordings but not old enough to be considered "historical".
Only recently has there been any serious attempt to reassess the
work of the artist who had been second conductor of the Concertgebouw
since 1931 and succeeded Mengelberg in 1945 when the latter’s
wartime collaboration with the Nazis led to a ban on his conducting
activities. Van Beinum continued to lead the orchestra until his
early death; he was also chief conductor of the London Philharmonic
(1949-1951, a "twinning" happily repeated later by Bernard
Haitink) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1956-7).
Whereas the presence of Toscanini, Furtwängler,
Walter, Stokowski and several others in a series dedicated to
"Great Conductors of the 20th Century" will
be disputed by no one, certain other presences (and absences)
have already caused lively discussion. It is fair to say that
for better or worse the reputation for being "sound but unexciting"
has attached itself to van Beinum as it did later to Haitink;
in such borderline or controversial cases we must expect the album
to present the case for the defence. So how does van Beinum come
across from these two CDs?
In certain moments – the coda of the first movement
or the stronger passages of the second – the Schubert symphony
has a rude vigour which grabs the attention, and yet I had to
admit I was not enjoying it very much. For one thing, the dotted
rhythms in the first movement are not always carefully articulated
and the ensemble is not more than 90% in the scherzo, but one
can gloss over worse than this if the spirit is right. No, listen
carefully to the accompanying figures and you will find that every
first beat in the inevitable four-bar phrases which lie behind
the symphonic thinking of early Schubert is deadeningly equal,
with the result that the performance, for all its superficial
energy, slogs instead of achieving buoyancy.
Hard words? Perhaps, but I am not being asked
to pronounce on whether this would be an acceptable bargain version
of Schubert 6 (on the whole it would if you don’t mind the 1950s
mono sound); I am being asked to judge whether this compilation
makes an adequate case for considering Eduard van Beinum among
the "Great Conductors of the 20th Century"
and I have to say that, taking into account the superb quality
of the orchestra he had to work with, he doesn’t even appear in
this instance to be a particularly good one.
Fortunately the Brahms is rather better, urgent
and powerful with a firm grip on the structure. Yet if you go
back to the 1940 version by the same orchestra under van Beinum’s
predecessor Willem Mengelberg, you will find (in spite of the
limited sound) textures of a glowing clarity beside which van
Beinum’s seem muddy, and a unanimity of dynamic shading from the
strings where van Beinum obtains only a generalised expressiveness.
Now that’s great conducting. Of course, Mengelberg was
a notoriously subjective artist, but his "changements"
are not especially disturbing in this particular symphony and,
speaking of "changements", the grandstand accelerando
at the end of the finale was a piece of vulgarity I did not expect
from van Beinum. And if you prefer a performance of sounder structural
roots than Mengelberg offers, then Boult goes further, masterly
in his combining of van Beinum’s urgency with a soaring amplitude
The second CD shows that van Beinum was perhaps
at his best in more romantic music, to which his approach is clear-headed
but far from strait-laced. The Strauss, from the same live concert
as the Brahms, has enormous electricity with plenty of room for
tenderness along the way. Better still is the Rimsky-Korsakov.
I was born and bred on the old Beecham LP of this piece, but van
Beinum comes as close as any I’ve heard, and he similarly concentrates
on the sheer musical values of what can seem a mere ragbag of
orchestral effects. The slowish first movement conveys powerfully
the surge of the ocean and in the second movement van Beinum is
outstanding in his control of the many tempo changes needed to
bring the music to life. The effect is of great freedom and spontaneity.
The opening of the third movement lacks the utter magic of Beecham’s
inimitable rubato, but it has a pleasing freshness and the finale,
taken at a speed which allows for clear articulation, is powerful
and brilliant. The final sea-storm and shipwreck are quite overwhelming.
My introduction to Elgar was an Ace of Clubs
LP which coupled "Cockaigne" with the cello concerto
(Anthony Pini) and the "Wand of Youth" suites, all under
van Beinum. I couldn’t have had a better start. No allowances
have to be made for an "interesting outsider’s view";
here is a totally idiomatic, vital performance of the overture,
at home in the swaggering moments as in the withdrawn poetry of
the lovers’ theme. Incredible that van Beinum could evoke with
such ease the high noon of an Edwardian London for which he would
surely have searched in vain among the grey rigours of Mr. Attlee’s
post-war reconstruction in 1949. But then, perhaps we should stop
thinking that Elgar is "about" Edwardian England; he
speaks a universal language and any "outsider" who wishes
can understand it.
I haven’t said anything about the two overtures
and frankly a general complaint I would make about this series
is the compilers’ tendency to waste space on lighter works which
add nothing to our knowledge of the conductor. The ability to
give good, lively performances of the overtures to Mignon and
The Merry Wives of Windsor (though lacking the ultimate in Gallic
grace in the former and in Viennese inflexions in the latter)
says little; indeed, when you think what the likes of a Beecham
could do with similar material, it says much by omission.
Beecham, Boult, Mengelberg … Alan Sanders in
his notes suggests that the decline in van Beinum’s reputation
may be due to the fact that he made very few stereo recordings.
I suggest that it may be because his wide range of excellent recorded
performances do not actually include any that have not been surpassed
by somebody else. Beecham, Boult and Mengelberg (just to stick
to conductors with whom I have made comparisons in the course
of the review) all left such recordings. Is there a van Beinum
recording, even just one, that stands as a benchmark, a model
for all time? If there is, it isn’t included here. Sanders tells
us that his performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings,
Percussion and Celesta has "unsurpassed tension and rhythmic
drive". So why didn’t we get it? Maybe van Beinum really
does belong among the "Great Conductors of the 20th
Century", but the present set fails to carry the case.
Conductors of the 20th Century Series