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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Harold in Italy [41.39]
André-Ernest-Modeste GRÉTRY (1741-1813)

Zémire et Azor - Pantomime (air de ballet) (1771) [4.29]
Étienne MÉHUL (1763-1817)

Timoléon - overture (1794) [5.30]
Le Trésor Supposé - overture (1802) [6.30]
La Chasse du Jeune Henri - overture (1797) [11.26]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

La Vierge - The Last Sleep of the Virgin (1877-78) [5.19]
William Primrose (viola)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. EMI Studio 1, Abbey Road, 13, 15 Nov 1951 (Berlioz); Walthamstow Town Hall, 28 Apr 1954 (Grétry); Dec 1953 (Méhul; Massenet)

Beecham's love affair with the Gallic muse was no temporary dalliance. It can be traced from his first concert to his very last. The record catalogue also carries the evidence. The splendid Sony UK Beecham series keeps enthusiasts alternately satisfied and on tenterhooks. For all that we pour scorn on Sony at an international level the artistic judgement and perceptive choices of the UK and French outfits continue to please. The notes for the Beecham series are just as much an exemplar. Whoever chose Graham Melville-Mason to provide the commentary has nothing to be ashamed of. GM-M's notes evince the drudgery of research but cloaked in brilliance of expression.

Beecham's Berlioz is rightly famed. His Harold bloomed from its beginnings in concerts with Tertis in 1933, to Primrose in 1942 and 1952 and Riddle in 1953 and 1956.

With an orchestra in which personality was not a dirty word we find Gerald Jackson (flute), Terence MacDonagh (oboe), Jack Brymer (clarinet), Gwydion Brooke (bassoon), Dennis Brain (horn), Leonard Brain (cor anglais) and David McCallum (violin).

What strikes me about this performance is Beecham's sauntering 'sprung' way with Pilgrims' March and his silky seamless supercharged continuity of line in Harold in the Mountains and The Orgy. There might be more snap and smash to the Orgy but its smoothness of lyrical line are compensation enough. Primrose is steady, pliant, and responsive; the ideal complement to the orchestra or vice versa. The mono sound is secure and, if this makes sense, very easy and pleasing to listen to.

The fillers remind us of the young Beecham poking around the librairies and bibliothèques of 1904 Paris. From these forays he built his library of Grétry and Méhul, Isouard and Monsigny. The Zémire is a soupy but uncongealed confection with a prominent rounded line for the cello. The Massenet is another classic lollipop in the Zémire mould although the lovely fade at the end gives signs of having been aided by the technicians of the time. The three Méhuls include some real rarities. Timoléon is lively and of a sweet though unsleepy disposition - an approach to Mozart's opera overtures via Berlioz. It sports some mercurial flute solos. Le Trésor Supposé is similarly shaped but much more earnest; not as successful. All is forgiven with the more famous La Chasse (a classic of the 78 era). Honeyed work and sensitive playing down to a silky pianissimo characterise the introduction. From a serenade-like tune of Mozartian 'fall' we move into a magically balanced dialogue of hunting horns sounding distantly. Then comes an elegant chasse which has the grand manner of Mozart's Jupiter and the lightning strikes of Beethoven's Seventh. The blast of the French horns in the final pages is unforgettable.

Beecham soothes and stimulates in this generous collection of the familiar and the unfashionable.

Rob Barnett

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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