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Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Schubert
Franz SCHUBERT (1770-1828)

Symphony No. 1 in D major D82 91813)
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major D485 (1814-15)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor Unfinished D759 (1822)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
Recorded 1951 (Symphony No 8) and 1953 (Symphonies 1 and 2)
SONY SMK87876 [77.27]


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Beecham’s tours during 1909-10 with his eponymous symphony orchestra gave him the opportunity greatly to expand his repertoire. In this way for example – and this is but one example amongst many – he first conducted a selection from the Nutcracker (which incidentally makes an appearance in the same recent batch of Sony/Beechams as this one). So too the Schubert Unfinished which he first conducted in Bedford in October 1909. The first two symphonies however were performed as run-throughs for the projected CBS recordings and whilst he did play both a few times after the1953 recording sessions they were almost immediately dropped from his active repertoire – as he’d dropped No. 4 after a single performance. Whilst his reluctance – or unwillingness – to record No. 4 is understandable it’s surprising that the only other symphony he didn’t commit to a commercial recording was No. 9.

I greatly enjoyed his Unfinished. Familiar orchestral virtues are prominently on display – the depth but not saturation of the basses, the brass punctuation - punctilious over attack and note values – and the consequent contrast between affectionate string phrasing and piercing declamation. The overlapping wind lines are given an exquisite freedom and tension is conveyed through an intense concentration. Running pizzicati with just the right weight drive the musical argument onwards and the sense of tragically incipient direction is never far away but equally never overplayed. In the Andante con moto one again encounters Beecham’s delicacy with string shaping and most admirable is the way he carefully measures the rise and fall of the supportive violins beneath Jack Brymer’s clarinet line (note the precision and immediacy of the diminuendi he asks for in the lower strings). All the woodwind principals are on richly verdant form but when Beecham shows his implacable face it is full of unyielding starkness. But above all what one relishes is the naturalness of the phrasing, its ebb and flow and the meticulous care that must have gone into the marking of parts. I’m not sure if the very bad edit at 10.24 in the Andante was present on the LP but it does rather leap out here.

The First Symphony was grist to Beecham’s mill; it’s a charming confection and Beecham plays up to it with invincible adroitness. The woodwind inflections in the first movement are quite splendid and Beecham lacks nothing in authoritative drive. The refinement of string tone in the Andante is an accustomed luxury (but doesn’t he lop off some bars here? The notes don’t say). My only real cause for concern would be his tempo for the Minuet, which might be too languid for some tastes (and the effect is to make perhaps too similar the prevailing tempi for both Andante and Minuet). Otherwise the Finale is really splendid and strong. The B flat major symphony receives an equally satisfying reading and is beautifully performed. Here his Minuet is properly fleet of foot and if the finale may lack a whisker of adrenalin it lacks for nothing in terms of finesse.

Beecham and Schubert generally made for the most congenial of companions and this Sony disc proves the point. Lyricism and care were the watchwords – the lyricism is generally taken for granted but the care all too often overlooked.

Jonathan Woolf

see also Review by Robert Hugill

Complete list of CBS Beecham recordings

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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