> Thomas Beecham - Berlioz/Mozart [MT]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Overture ‘Le Carnaval romain,’ Op. 9, H. 95
‘Grande Ouverture du Roi Lear,’ Op. 4, H. 53
‘Grande Ouverture de Waverley,’ Op. 1, H. 26
‘Grande Ouverture des Francs-Juges,’ Op. 3, H. 23D
‘Ouverture du Corsaire,’ Op. 21, H. 101
Overture to ‘Les troyens à Carthage,’ Op. 29B, H. 133A
‘Marche troyenne’ (Concert version), H. 133B
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham Recorded: 2, 3, 16, 17 December 1954, Walthamstow Town Hall, London

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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Symphony No 31 in D Major, K. 297 (300a) ‘Paris’
Requiem in D Minor, K. 626
Elsie Morison (soprano), Monica Sinclair (contralto), Alexander Young (tenor), Marian Nowakowski (bass), BBC Chorus,
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded: 13-14 December 1954, Walthamstow Town Hall, 29 May 1956, EMI Studio No 1, Abbey Road (K. 626); 9 March 1951, Kingsway Hall, 9 May 1951, EMI Studio No 1, Abbey Road (K. 297)

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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No 35 in D Major, K. 385, ‘Haffner’
Symphony No 40 in G Minor, K. 550
Symphony No 41 in C Major, K. 551, ‘Jupiter’
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded: 30 April and 1 May 1954 (K. 385), 27 April 1954 (K. 550), 22 February 1950 (K. 551), Walthamstow Town Hall

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Temperamentally there could seem to be no two composers so opposed as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Louis-Hector Berlioz, or so one might think. Yet it was W.J. Turner who made the cosmic connection betwixt the two when he remarked that above all else they were the two naturally intuitive composers. This is not to suggest their inspirations had the same wellsprings, nor that their working methods were at all similar (while both had the benefit of lightning inspiration, Berlioz lacked Mozart’s facility in getting a finished work to paper and had to work at it). Nor, of course, does it suggest any similarity of style, save for that which both owed to Gluck. But in the sense that both appear to have plucked invention and daring originality out of a Jungian collective consciousness, both men clearly possessed a direct line to their respective Muses.

It is this shared characteristic, perhaps beyond any other, which must have attracted the great Lancashire-born baronet to the music of Mozart and of Berlioz (and, perhaps, to that of Frederick Delius as well; a further CD in this series is devoted to some of Sir Thomas’s contemporaneous recordings of his old friend’s music, but the present reviewer has never had a high tolerance for Delius, and so has deferred that issue to anyone more sympathetic). For it must be recalled that Beecham went very much against common practice, particularly in the 1930s, in presenting a characterful and testosterone-driven Mozart, free of mincing and preciosity. A similar strength of forward thrust and propulsive melody informs his Berlioz. Of the three great Berlioz-proponents of the first third of the 20th Century, Felix Weingartner and Sir Hamilton Harty managed between them to leave only a few hours of recordings of the Frenchman’s works. Sir Thomas, on the other hand, lived as late as 1961 and left numerous recordings (as well as transcriptions of live performances) of large works and small.

What we have here is a selection of the small, which is not to say miniatures. Sir Thomas’ postwar creation of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra afforded him not merely the opportunity to once again build a great orchestra from the ground up, and to have his pick of favourite ‘first-chair’ men; the new contract with Columbia enabled him to record his core repertoire again in high-fidelity sound. The largest Berlioz work to benefit from this partnership was the viola symphony Harold en italie, with Scottish violist William Primrose. This was issued by Sony as MPK 47679, with a couple of the overtures from this collection. By 1953 he had patched things up sufficiently with the London Philharmonic Orchestra to make a stunning recording of the Te Deum; this ought by rights to be next on Sony’s reissue list.

The present issue is a selection of overtures and other short concert works, which in many other composers’ catalogues might be considered ‘lollipops’ (to use a Beechamesque term), but which in Berlioz’ oeuvre are meaty, long-limned musical arguments. Indeed, some of these are derived from operas, either as a by-work (‘Le carnaval romain,’ with material from the 1837 theatrical failure Benvenuto Cellini), an afterthought (the two Troyens offshoots, one a prelude which essentially replaced the first two acts, the other a concert tit-bit based on the march heard at dramatic points throughout the opera), or simply one of the few surviving fragments (in the case of Les francs-juges, disassembled and largely reused or discarded).

Sir Thomas’ way with Berlioz was always sinewy and colourful, and these recordings are no exception. In particular this reviewer enjoyed ‘Le carnaval romain,’ though the recording is a bit shrill on top; but in the ‘festival’ sections, good transients save the day (especially that tambourine!) The ‘Waverley’ is perhaps a little dull and congested, but accumulates power to a rousing conclusion. The mysterious ‘Francs-juges’ begins quite restrained and deliberate, if not outright leisurely, to great effect later, namely a gain in nobility (at the expense of superficial dash, which of course was not what Sir Thomas was about). In all, a highly recommendable collection which aptly shows how this estimable conductor richly personalized his Berlioz in the studio. One would also not want to be without the two Beecham releases available from BBC Legends, one of them (BBCL 4065-2) containing a moving Harold en italie from 1956, with the jolly boys of the RPO once again and violist Frederick Riddle, and live versions of ‘Corsair,’ ‘Roi Lear,’ and the ‘Marche troyenne’; or the even more valuable document (BBCL 4011-2), Sir Thomas’ 1959 performance of the Grande Messe des morts at the Royal Albert Hall. Or perhaps the Harold with Primrose will make a welcome reappearance, along with that magnificent Te Deum.

The drama of the Requiem text is more introspectively treated by Mozart (in the familiar Süssmayr edition, with some interesting editorial alterations to be noted), and brings out a reading that is romantic and round-edged, rather than propulsive. The soloists are closely miked here, and a general aura of reserve surrounds the whole recording. Perhaps the widely-separated recording sessions are somewhat at fault here. The soloists, though not Mozartean superstars of the age, are more than adequate. Nowakowski is basically earnest, Young is at his plangent best, Sinclair is sincere, whilst Elsie Morison (taking a turn out of the G&S roles she usually did, when not singing the Mahler Symphony #4 with her husband, Rafael Kubelik!) is a most gracious soprano soloist.

About those editorial changes – someone seems to have taken a heavy editing pencil to Süssmayr. Most notably, in the Tuba mirum, the trombone under the basso solo is quickly replaced by a viola solo! The trombones return with a vengeance in the Rex tremendae, however, and a slightly congested sound surrounds the entire affair.

The symphonies (No 31 sharing the disc with the Requiem, Nos 35, 40 and 41 on their own) are somewhat less successful. For one thing, much more stylish and elegant playing is to be found in Beecham’s earlier Mozart symphony recordings, specifically the London Philharmonic issues pre-war, and the Royal Philharmonic of the late 1940s. Opening movements are not as fleet, minuets very stately (that of the ‘Haffner’ almost stodgy). The G minor in particular suffers from sound that is mushy in the tuttis; nevertheless it has a propulsive first movement, with those characterful wind solos (if a bit overly spotlit). But these are only disappointments in comparison; Beecham aficionados will find much to admire here. Recommended as a useful supplement to those earlier recordings, many of them variously available from Dutton.


Matthew B. Tepper


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