A welcome reissue
in EMI’s Great Recordings of the
Century series. This compilation
first appeared in 1990 as part of
the old Beecham Edition and
restored to circulation some of the
conductor’s most enduring recordings
from the 1950s, in remarkable early
stereo. Beecham had performed the
Pelleas music and Tapiola
at Sibelius’s 90th birthday
concert with the RPO in the Festival
Hall at the time of making these recordings.
The music could not help but be fresh
in his and his orchestra’s collective
minds. That concert is also available
in its entirety on BBC Legends, for
those wishing to contrast the commercial
recordings with the live performances.
Now newly remastered,
these vintage recordings sound fabulous.
In the Pelleas and Melisande Suite
sonorous strings in At the Castle
Gate contrast with delicate woodwind
playing elsewhere. The Death of
Melisande is most affecting.
Beecham claimed Sibelius
himself asked him to record The
Oceanides. At the time this was
the first version of the work to appear
since Boult’s old BBC version in the
1930s; Sir Adrian himself set down
another version with the LPO the following
year. Although he never performed
in concert, Beecham’s performance
fully encompasses the work’s many
facets, from the chattering woodwind
of the opening to the tremendous climax
towards the end.
It’s been customary
to regard the performance of the Seventh
Symphony as one of Beecham’s few Sibelius
recordings that slightly miss the
mark. It’s true that on a point-by-point
comparison with the likes of Koussevitzky
or Karajan, Beecham’s performance
seems to operate at a lower level.
However over the span of the work
Sir Thomas’s cumulative control of
tension, tempi and dynamics allows
him to project the symphony as a single
overarching structure, with the main
points of tension and release arriving
towards the end with the recapitulation.
The recording of
Tapiola was not issued until
after Beecham’s death, perhaps due
to the lack of a suitable coupling.
There can be no reservations at all
about the quality of the performance;
it is perhaps the finest on the disc
and one of the great recordings of
this monumental work on record. Beecham
creates a mood of brooding intensity
in the work’s opening pages which
he maintains throughout until the
storm section erupts in a fury. At
the end, as in all good performances
of Tapiola, we are left drained
yet strangely cleansed by the power
of the music.
Throughout this disc
the performances are of the very highest
standard, with Beecham’s accustomed
sensitivity to phrasing and dynamics.
Recordings have come up newly minted
in these transfers, sounding richer
and more spacious than ever. A Great
Recording of the Century, beyond a
Great Recordings of the Century