Slow the process may be but the BBC archives are gradually being reopened
and in a most satisfying way. The legal and copyright aspects are not to
be underestimated. Such releases have to surmount UK (and EU) law.
The present set is one of the most intriguing in the BBC Legends series.
We have heard Beecham in Sibelius 2 before now and wondered at his guffawing
encouragement to the orchestra in the climaxes and the heated romanticism
he achieved. I learnt Sibelius 2 through that old World Record Club LP. It
spoils you for lesser productions. That performance (given at the RFH) in
1954 (the year before the present concert) marked Sibelius's 89th
The sound in the 2 disc set is monophonic and competently solid in the manner
of early FM broadcast quality. The downside is a tendency to pull dynamic
punches presumably because of a fear of signal overload. The concerts took
place in 1955 two years after I was born so our expectations need to be adjusted
accordingly. The audience while hardly intrusive are not silent. Coughs are
certainly to be heard as is applause. However along with the negative we
should joy in the atmosphere of the concert and vividness of the music making.
The Swanwhite Suite picks up multiple references to Sibelius 3 and
6 as well as a Straussian succulence and an Iberian exoticism. Sibelius (and
Beecham) are good at this light-winged cool ardour. A good track to sample
is The Harp. Beecham engages the emotions with the deftest of hands
- a touch of the softest blossom. Such slender fargile meotions also feature
in The Dance of the Nymphs - played at the concert as an encore.
The Fourth Symphony was a Beecham staple. He brought half a lifetime's experience
to the recorded performance. While it remains 'barkbrod' its impulse (often
unleashed - listen to the quickfire cello at the start of the finale) is
lyric. The outward casing of this work makes few concessions to the very
romantic circus of which Beecham was a champion. Beecham resists the temptation
to inject alien romance. Instead he lifts and floats both textures and themes
presenting the work in a way that clarifies and sings. This is the very
antithesis of the Karajan and Maazel recordings with which I grew up.
Beecham's 15 minute radio talk finds the conductor in deliberate voice -
clearly caught. In this small span he surveys the works, noting the extensive
presence of light music - light that is
not trivial. Beecham
even mentions his own and the composer's mutual interest: cigars - big ones!
Pelleas is a twentieth century classic of delicately feathered twilights.
Much the same sensibility, in pause and in press, is evident in Pelleas as
it is in Swanwhite. Beecham points up that facet of the score that links
with Tchaikovsky, especially the Serenade for Strings.
The Seventh Symphony receives a more vivid and emotionally involving performance
than Beecham had achieved some months earlier when he had taken the work
into the EMI studios with the same orchestra. There is a communicative urgency
about the playing that seemed to have been sapped out of the studio version.
It is not as brilliantly lit or as melodramatically taut a performance as
Mravinsky achieved in Moscow in 1965 but it is certainly a powerful document
with a touch of subtlety largely absent from the overwhelming Russian
performance. This performance is perhaps more in tune with Beecham's recording
of the same work with the New York Philharmonic.
Tapiola is handled with that revivifying combination of sensitive colouration
and attention to dynamics and pulse evident in the Seventh Symphony. The
strange remote woodland fastnesses are communicated without undue civilisation.
I can imagine a rawer, more granitic performance - perhaps from Mravinsky
(did he ever record it I wonder) but Beecham's interpretation is full of
The concert was relayed to Sibelius at Järvenpää. At the close
Beecham calls on the audience to raise their hands to indicate that best
wishes should be sent to the composer! A typically Beechamesque episode.
Beecham releases have sometimes been controversial. At least one (Berlioz
Requiem, I believe) was the subject of copyright dispute some years
ago and was withdrawn from circulation. In this case the announced and thanked
assistance of Shirley, Lady Beecham, makes it plain that the Beecham Estate
have here given their approval.
A fresh and freshening Sibelius experience which will engage the enthusiasm
of all save those who must have stereo and the most up to date sound. A tetsament
to an imagination undimmed by age, quick-witted and in touch with Sibelius's
and Gerald Fenech adds:-
This has to be my personal favorite from all the wonderful BBC Legends released
so far. Beecham's Sibelius has always retained a special place in every Sibelian
discography especially since his pioneering set of the Fourth from 1939.
Since then a constant clutter of recordings continued to come from Beecham's
baton with his LPO and latterly the RPO. It is thus instructive to re-examine
these live relays of some quite magical music together with two of Beecham's
favorite symphonies. As usual the concert begins with a swaggering rendition
of the British National Anthem followed by a similarly pompous Finnish Anthem.
The music to 'Swanwhite' is wonderfully evocative, filled with a magical
sense of air and awesome beauty especially in the sensuous 'The Harp'. Beecham's
shaping of the noble 'Song of Praise' also signifies his passion for this
delicate music. This second recording of the Fourth is much clearer than
the more famous studio effort but that is obviously on a higher voltage.
Still there is much to enjoy in this live relay with a searching first movement
very similar to Karajan's contemporary account on EMI. Beecham is also very
melancholic in the mystical 'Il tempo largo' and a passionate Allegro, rightfully
concluding with tumultuous applause.
Again I would still retain the 1939 performance as authoritative but this
live performance is a must for all Beecham devotees. The highlight of this
first disc must be Sir Thomas Beecham's authoritative talk recorded for BBC's
famous Third Programme and is imbued with character and inimitable swagger
from this most charismatic conductor and is a really affectionate tribute
from artist to artist.
The second disc begins with a heavily romanticized version of 'Pelleas et
Melisande' slightly better than the EMI studio version and wonderfully
characterful. The pathos of 'Melisande' is inimitable, typical Beecham magic
flows throughout the RPO strings. Drama and darkness are also portrayed in
'The Death of Melisande', this is rather similar to Collins' Decca account
but I marginally prefer Beecham. Another 'Tapiola' this time almost similar
to the 1947 version but with the added 'frission' of a live performance.
Throughout, Beecham's control of the structural and physical foundations
of this masterpiece is unsurpassed, perhaps only by Karajan's superb BPO
version of ten years later.
The same goes for the third version of the Seventh now on record, however
the 1940 NYPO version still remains unsurpassed. A clearer more wholesome
recording is on offer and Sir Thomas' view remains a very creditable one
after fifteen years. I enjoyed the swaggering speeches, vintage Beecham and
the exquisite 'Dance of the Nymphs' is a magical reminder of those encores
that characterized the Beecham touch. The documentation by Graham Melville
Mason is exemplary, as are the photographs with Beecham at the piano particularly
enticing. This collection of live recordings is an essential addition to
the Sibelius library and will be enjoyed by all devotees of the conductor
and composer alike.