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Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Berlioz, Grétry, Méhul and Massenet
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Harold in Italy (1834) *
André-Ernest-Modeste GRÉTRY (1741-1813)

Zémire et Azor – Pantomime (Air de Ballet)
Etienne MÉHUL (1763-1817)

Timoléon – overture
Le Trésor Supposé – overture
La Chasse du Jeune Henri – overture
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

La Vierge – The Last Sleep of the Virgin
William Primrose (viola) *
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded 1951-54
SONY CLASSICAL SMK91167 [76.22]


AVAILABILITY

www.sonyclassical.co.uk

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 whilst also losses in terms of audience coughing, a few intonational concerns and a greater sense of the explication 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, and Riddle’s understanding of Beecham’s cantilever is distinguished. This is the only extant example of Riddle’s Harold whilst Primrose of course set down recordings with Koussevitzky and Munch. Incidentally his first Harold was when he was co-principal of the NBC with Toscanini conducting, a private recording of which the Italian conductor invited the Scotsman to hear. I assume it’s still extant – a suitable case for Guild (unless I’ve missed a commercial release of it somewhere)?

This all-French disc is additionally graced by some long unavailable material. The Méhul gets some cracking work from Beecham. The trumpets punch out in Timoléon and the strings slash over the dramatic double basses. Works like this were the fruit of Beecham’s long-held fascination with late eighteenth century French music, fuelled by hours in the Bibliothèque Nationale and Parisian bookshops in the first decade of the twentieth century. He is very much the Grand Seigneur, full of lyricism and swagger in the overture to Le Trésor Supposé, and strong on exultant power. The biggest of the trio of Méhul overtures is that for La Chasse du Jeune Henri (strangely mis-titled on the disc as La Chasse de Jeanne Henri) which features the distinguished contributions of Jack Brymer and Gwydion Brooke. The suspenseful string figuration ratchets up the tension, added to by Dennis Brain’s immaculate horn calls, the marvellously vigorous but subtle playing an apt reflection of Beecham’s affection for and interest in the work. Balance is superb, the drama and vigour are predominant, bagpipe drones are irresistible in their immediacy and everything opens out into blazing sunlight. Beecham described this kind of thing as Chivalric Romance and that’s quite as he plays it, not least the blazing climax. Grétry’s Pantomime from Zémire et Azor is one of my Beecham favourites but not in this performance. I much prefer the touching intimacy of his 1940 LPO recording with its touching single line string leave-taking to this rather plumped up affair but the Massenet Last Virgin, as Beecham used to put it, is beautifully veiled and intimate.

The 1951-54 monos sound full of subtlety and depth in these transfers and Melville-Mason’s notes are characteristically full of acumen and period interest – I’m glad he hasn’t relied on Gramophone reviews, as he is sometimes prone to do. An exciting, invigorating disc.

Jonathan Woolf

 



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