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Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883): Overture & Venusberg Music (Tannhauser)* Frederick DELIUS (1862 - 1934): Irmelin, Scenes from Act 2
Georges BIZET
(1838 - 1875): Music from L'Arlésienne, Suites 1 & 2 Jules MASSENET (1842 - 1912): The Last Sleep of the Virgin (from La Vierge)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
* BBC Women's Chorus
Conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded live at The Royal Albert Hall on 16 September, 1954
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4068-2 [73.22]
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At the time of writing this review the 2001 season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts is just getting under way. As usual an impressive roster of conductors will occupy the rostrum. However, this excellent new BBC Legends release is a timely reminder that things have changed over the years.

Until comparatively recently it was usual for the concerts to be shared by a relative handful of conductors. This was probably one reason why even such a prominent figure as Sir Thomas Beecham was an infrequent guest. However, it came as a surprise to read in the notes that during his entire career he graced the Proms podium on only three occasions. One of these concerts was in 1915; the other two took place on consecutive nights in September 1954. This CD contains a good deal of the programme given at the second of the 1954 concerts.

Typically, Sir Thomas treated the Promenaders to a programme which was very representative of his art (and designed to show his RPO to best advantage). Wagner, Delius and Bizet were on the bill and the other two works in the programme, not included here, were both symphonies which were cornerstones of the Beecham repertoire, Haydn's 99th and Sibelius' 7th.

By the time this concert took place the RPO was eight years old. The opportunity presented here to hear it 'live' shows what a marvellous ensemble Beecham had created. Perhaps this is not surprising since the list of principals, many of whose contributions to these performances are singled out in the notes, reads like a who's who of the post war British orchestral aristocracy. However, the rank and file players should not be overlooked. Beecham could not have achieved the sort of results we hear on this disc unless the entire band had been of the highest quality.

The concert must have been a pretty memorable experience. Beecham leads a thrilling performance of the Tannhauser music. The playing in the Delius is equally excellent. Frankly, Irmelin is not top-drawer Delius but Beecham secures exquisite playing and shapes the music eloquently and affectionately. Incidentally, the sound quality is less satisfactory in this part of the programme than in the Wagner which precedes it on the CD (though the running order on the evening was different, it seems). Inevitably the mono sound shows its age a bit at various points in the disc but never to the extent that enjoyment of the performances is impaired.

The music from L'Arlésienne receives a superb performance. Beecham plays Suite 1 complete and adds two movements (Menuet and Farandole) from Suite 2. This composer's music always suited Beecham perfectly and it is hard to imagine a better or more spirited account than this.

Two further items complete the disc. Firstly, Beecham gives his own "Last Night" speech. Delivered in his inimitable style and drawl it is lapped up by the Promenaders. Perhaps one wouldn't want to listen to the speech too often, entertaining though it is, but the encore which follows is a different matter. On a night like this Beecham might well have taken his leave with an extrovert item. Instead he presents a little jewel, Massenet's Last Sleep of the Virgin. This is played with infinite tenderness and delicacy. The music might be a touch sweet for some palates but when performed like this all resistance is disarmed. Unforgettable.

One very small cavil. The dates of both Delius and Bizet are incorrectly given (Bizet actually becomes a 20th century composer!) A pity that sloppy proof reading results in a small blemish on such an otherwise excellent release.

For those of us who never saw or heard Beecham 'live' this CD gives an idea of what those who did mean when they speak of the 'Beecham magic'. This disc is a splendid memento of what was clearly An Occasion and will be an indispensable purchase for Beecham admirers. One of the out and out winners in this BBC Legends series and warmly recommended.

John Quinn


 

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