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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme by Haydn (St. Anthony Variations) Op. 56a (1873) [16:35]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Don Quixote Op.35 (1897) [40:39]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphonic Poem: The Garden of Fand (1913-16) [17:13]
Two introductory talks by Beecham [3:30]
John Kennedy (cello); Frederick Riddle (viola)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
rec. BBC Studios, 30 March 1949 (Brahms and Bax); live, Edinburgh Festival, Usher Hall, 22 August 1956 (Strauss)
SOMM-BEECHAM 21 [78:24]


The latest issue from The Beecham Collection gives us three previously unissued performances. The Brahms and Bax were recorded in the BBC’s studios in March 1949 and the Strauss derives from an Edinburgh Festival concert given in August 1956.

The most exciting news for collectors is the Brahms. Beecham never recorded the Haydn Variations and this is the first performance of it to have emerged on disc. I’ve been listening to Naxos’s new transfer of the Furtwängler Haydn Variations given with the Vienna Philharmonic in the same year as this Beecham performance. In every variation bar one Beecham is quicker. Not a judgement, simply a statement of fact. Though his favourite Brahms work was the Second Symphony the variations respond equally and especially to his vibrancy and vitality. The second variation, the Piu vivace has lashings of rhythmic flair. There is palpable warmth in the violas and cellos in the Andante con moto [variation 4] and admirable buoyancy and power in the vivace variation six. It’s excellent news that Beecham’s discography is enlarged by virtue of this good sounding 1949 restoration.

The other two works are part of the established commercial discography. He recorded Bax’s The Garden of Fand in 1947. The booklet notes quote Bax’s letter to Harriet Cohen on the occasion of a 1931 Queen’s Hall performance of the same work by Beecham – Bax called it "the most beautiful orchestral experience of my life – as far as my own works are concerned …. it could not be surpassed … and the whole work was pervaded with the most marvellous remoteness and delicacy …" When Bax, "rather emotional" in his own words, congratulated Beecham the conductor replied "My dear fellow, I see all the things I can do with this work in the future." After the War he was true to his word. This 1949 broadcast doesn’t materially differ from the commercial disc – it’s very, very slightly broader – but there are subtle details that will delight. It necessarily lacks the clarity of the celebrated disc but strikes a slightly more pungent stance. The opening, for instance, is more assertive in the Maida Vale studios with the winds more prominent. Despite the slight congestion in the sound the winds emerge with considerable presence and there are plenty of charismatic and glamorous solos from section principals. It’s a work that clearly appealed to the voluptuary in Beecham and this performance is full of allure and sweep and grandeur. The climaxes fortunately don’t distort.

A number of Edinburgh Festival performances given by Beecham have been emerging on this label. May we hope for his Bantock Hebridean Symphony performance from the same series? Here for now is a sizeable bonus – the 1956 Don Quixote with section leaders John Kennedy (father of Nigel) and Frederick Riddle. He recorded this twice, firstly in New York with Alfred Wallenstein and Rene Pollain and secondly with the RPO, Paul Tortelier and Leonard Rubens. Beecham’s conception of Don Quixote was never standardised but the sense of balance and control ensure that there are many more similarities between the earlier RPO performance than differences. Often in fact timings are almost identical. The main divergence comes in the final scene where the concert performance encourages him to a decidedly more expansive treatment than the studio-bound one with Tortelier and Rubens. Overall there’s about a minute between the two performances, almost entirely due to the last scene. And the performance shows Beecham once more a most eloquent and sensitive Straussian; both principals acquit themselves with distinction. Riddle of course was a most distinguished soloist but Kennedy’s career was more circumscribed. His tone is unostentatious, devoid of gauche slides, finely centred and his rhythmic sense elevated. The hushed pianissimo at the end is beautiful.

There are also two spoken introductions by Beecham in semi-seigneurial form, rolling some of his vowels as if he’d just encountered them for the first time. Graham Melville-Mason’s notes cap another hard-to-resist entrant for the Beecham collector.

Jonathan Woolf



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