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Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Tchaikovsky
Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

The Nutcracker Op 71a Ballet Suite (1892)
Symphony No 2 in C Op 17 Little Russian (1872 rev 1879)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
Recorded 1953 (Symphony) and 1954 (Nutcracker Suite)
SONY SMK87875 [60.21]


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Beecham wasn’t an habitual conductor of The Nutcracker. He’d first performed it in abridged form during a tour with his eponymous symphony orchestra – known for its occasional rowdiness, hence the soubriquet ‘the Fireworks Orchestra’ – back in 1911 though it continued to make occasional appearances in his programmes. The Little Russian by contrast was performed mainly as a run-through for the commercial recording enshrined in this disc, which was made in 1953 – and he only returned to the Symphony on two subsequent occasions. Nevertheless the pliancy and debonair charm he lavishes on both works is almost enough to convince us that these were works close to his heart. Beecham certainly was exercised by the elegance of Russian music as Graham Melville-Mason’s notes reveal and there’s no gainsaying the meticulous but generous delicacy of his conducting, its nuance and subtlety as well as the moments of athletic vivacity when required (more in the Symphony than in the Ballet Suite).

In The Nutcracker for example his principals are on suitably delectable form. The flutes are delicious in the Allegro giusto, whereas Beecham is quite slow – not cautious exactly but rather patrician – in the March, though the pizzicati are animated enough and rhythmic points register with unadorned excellence. There’s verve and elegance in equal measure in the Trepak and the Danse Arabe is taken at a decent speed, fully conveying its incipient drama. Rather slower than usual but nicely inflected the Danse des Mirlitons certainly escapes the charge of being over dainty and merely elfin in Beecham’s leisurely hands. Come the Valse des Fleurs and we can admire the burnish of the RPO’s violas and cellos and the effulgence of the brass. Don’t expect daemonic drive from this Nutcracker; Beecham is altogether more affable and even-tempered.

More distinction attends the performance of the Second Symphony. Beecham instils a strong melodic curve and contour to the lyric line of the opening Andante sostenuto. His rhythmic clarity is well conveyed and he deploys brass with strategic strength. Jack Brymer’s clarinet is much to the fore in the Andantino marziale – a movement retrieved from the 1869 opera Undine – in which Beecham’s tempo is just right, one that conveys depth through movement. The Scherzo by contrast is vivacious and full of colour, rhythmic dash and a controlled, never headlong, momentum. Beecham extracts optimum wit from the trio section as well. The way in which he drives the finale is laudable but equally so the manner in which principals are given sufficient time to phrase. The lightening of string textures is but one component of his success here – a product of careful delineation, imagination and an acute ear. As Beecham once or twice ruefully remarked, whatever else anyone said of him, good or bad, no one ever complimented him on his sheer hard work.

The tapes have come up splendidly and whilst this might be thought one of the less immediately appealing issues in the latest batch of Beecham/Sony discs – for the less enticing repertoire not for any performance liabilities – it’s nevertheless chock-full of charm and verve, of elegance and charm.

Jonathan Woolf

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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