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Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms
Felix von MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Ruy Blas Overture Op. 95
The Hebrides Overture Op. 26
Symphony No. 4 in A major Op. 90 Italian
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Manfred Overture Op. 115
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Tragic Overture Op. 81
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded London 1950-56
SONY SMK87965 [71.26]



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This is another eminently well selected release from the impressive uniform-liveried Sony Beecham series. It collates works by three composers, two of whom were acknowledged specialities of Beecham’s and the other, Brahms, of which he was a fitfully enlightening interpreter. Most of the repertoire plays very much to his strengths of lyricism, elegance and a grandeur generated through consistently elevated phrasing.

Thus Ruy Blas is suffused with lyric elegance with all sections of the orchestra immaculately drilled – brass effulgent, flute lines deliciously traced – and a sense of buoyancy quite without breathlessness. The Hebrides receives an attractive rather than outstanding interpretation. It’s strong on atmosphere and mines a particularly withdrawn introspection; dynamics are scrupulously reduced and there’s an elastic sensitivity to much of the phrasing without any great voluptuous upheaval and drama. The Italian Symphony is beautifully done. There’s a deliciously sprung rhythm to the opening movement, which is not rushed off its feet as it all too often was then (see Toscanini, Monteux, Cantelli et al). The tempo is relaxed but with sufficient dynamism and internal rhythm to draw it on and Beecham cultivates a real degree of clarity without indulging any sense of specious excitement. The way he leads into the fugal development section with captivating lightness of touch is a delight. He doesn’t take the first movement repeat in common with most performances of the day – though Klemperer was unusual inasmuch as he did take it, to advantage, in his almost contemporaneous recording. The Andante con moto is, once more, taken at a refreshing tempo with the string lines delightfully moulded, the crest and melodic fall artfully shaped, whilst the third movement has a charming lyricism in Beecham’s hands. He’s clearly keen to distinguish between the movements in terms of tempo and accenting and to this extent this movement is definitely con molto moderato - that means that it’s quite measured but has time to articulate and breathe. The Saltarello finale is not as sheerly vibrant and exciting as others’ performances. Its slightly weighted measure brings with it other rewards, however, such as those of balance and apposite colour and rhythm – and this is altogether a most convincing and affectionate performance.

Beecham harboured a degree of reverence for Schumann, adding that all that is best in the German soul is enshrined here. He’d first conducted parts of Manfred, a work about which he nevertheless had mixed feelings, in 1918 though in a fairly free staging which he had done his inimitable best to "cheer up." This included interpolations of orchestrated piano pieces and other tomfoolery calculated to banish the "tedium" Beecham found in the score. The much later 1954 recording of a large part of the score was available on CD (on Lady Beecham’s Beecham4) but this Overture recording dates from two years later. It wasn’t a piece he performed in the concert hall – only one performance has been traced, from 1949 – but you’d never know it from this gravely surging, complexly emotive and sensitively textured performance. Overarching everything is an elevated nobility of spirit that must in all its philosophic and literary allusiveness have greatly appealed to Beecham, surely one of the most bookish of all leading conductors. We end with Brahms’s Tragic Overture. It’s tautly conceived in terms of transitions, quite light in texture, with a lyrically controlled central section. It doesn’t seem to me to extrapolate any great depth from the score, though, and whilst the climax is well judged it rather lacks the sense of determined tension that authentic Brahmsians bring to the overtures.

The notes, excellent as ever, are by Graham Melville-Mason and the remastering is unobtrusive in its excellence. Strongly recommended then, especially for the Italian Symphony, Ruy Blas and the Manfred Overture.

Jonathan Woolf



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