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Eduard Van Beinum (1900-1959)
CD 1
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)

Mignon: Overture (1)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Symphony no.6 in C, D.589 (2)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony no.2 in D, op.73 (3)
CD 2
Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)

Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor: Overture (4)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Don Juan, op.20 (5)
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Scheherazade, op.35 (6)
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Cockaigne (In London Town), op.40 (7)
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra (1-6)
London Philharmonic Orchestra (7)/Eduard van Beinum
Rec. Locations: Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (1, 2, 4, 6), Staatstheater, Stuttgart (3, 5), Kingsway Hall, London (7); Dates: 10.4.1956 (1, 4), 22-25.5.1957 (2), 16.9.1955 (3, 5), 22-29.5.1956 (6), 13.5.1949 (7). 3 and 5 are live recordings issued for the first time
Great Conductors Of The 20th Century: vol. 26
EMI CLASSICS IMG ARTISTS 5 75941 2 [2 CDs: 75:43+78:54]

 

When I started collecting records the budget label discs were still mono only and Deccaís Ace of Clubs label, in particular, contained a wide range of performances conducted by Eduard van Beinum, records which had been mainstays of their catalogue since the arrival of the LP. After a dismal attempt to convert some of these into "electronic stereo" on a label called, with good reason, Eclipse, a whole generation of performances disappeared into a limbo Ė too old to compete with modern recordings but not old enough to be considered "historical". Only recently has there been any serious attempt to reassess the work of the artist who had been second conductor of the Concertgebouw since 1931 and succeeded Mengelberg in 1945 when the latterís wartime collaboration with the Nazis led to a ban on his conducting activities. Van Beinum continued to lead the orchestra until his early death; he was also chief conductor of the London Philharmonic (1949-1951, a "twinning" happily repeated later by Bernard Haitink) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1956-7).

Whereas the presence of Toscanini, Furtwängler, Walter, Stokowski and several others in a series dedicated to "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" will be disputed by no one, certain other presences (and absences) have already caused lively discussion. It is fair to say that for better or worse the reputation for being "sound but unexciting" has attached itself to van Beinum as it did later to Haitink; in such borderline or controversial cases we must expect the album to present the case for the defence. So how does van Beinum come across from these two CDs?

In certain moments Ė the coda of the first movement or the stronger passages of the second Ė the Schubert symphony has a rude vigour which grabs the attention, and yet I had to admit I was not enjoying it very much. For one thing, the dotted rhythms in the first movement are not always carefully articulated and the ensemble is not more than 90% in the scherzo, but one can gloss over worse than this if the spirit is right. No, listen carefully to the accompanying figures and you will find that every first beat in the inevitable four-bar phrases which lie behind the symphonic thinking of early Schubert is deadeningly equal, with the result that the performance, for all its superficial energy, slogs instead of achieving buoyancy.

Hard words? Perhaps, but I am not being asked to pronounce on whether this would be an acceptable bargain version of Schubert 6 (on the whole it would if you donít mind the 1950s mono sound); I am being asked to judge whether this compilation makes an adequate case for considering Eduard van Beinum among the "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" and I have to say that, taking into account the superb quality of the orchestra he had to work with, he doesnít even appear in this instance to be a particularly good one.

Fortunately the Brahms is rather better, urgent and powerful with a firm grip on the structure. Yet if you go back to the 1940 version by the same orchestra under van Beinumís predecessor Willem Mengelberg, you will find (in spite of the limited sound) textures of a glowing clarity beside which van Beinumís seem muddy, and a unanimity of dynamic shading from the strings where van Beinum obtains only a generalised expressiveness. Now thatís great conducting. Of course, Mengelberg was a notoriously subjective artist, but his "changements" are not especially disturbing in this particular symphony and, speaking of "changements", the grandstand accelerando at the end of the finale was a piece of vulgarity I did not expect from van Beinum. And if you prefer a performance of sounder structural roots than Mengelberg offers, then Boult goes further, masterly in his combining of van Beinumís urgency with a soaring amplitude of phrase.

The second CD shows that van Beinum was perhaps at his best in more romantic music, to which his approach is clear-headed but far from strait-laced. The Strauss, from the same live concert as the Brahms, has enormous electricity with plenty of room for tenderness along the way. Better still is the Rimsky-Korsakov. I was born and bred on the old Beecham LP of this piece, but van Beinum comes as close as any Iíve heard, and he similarly concentrates on the sheer musical values of what can seem a mere ragbag of orchestral effects. The slowish first movement conveys powerfully the surge of the ocean and in the second movement van Beinum is outstanding in his control of the many tempo changes needed to bring the music to life. The effect is of great freedom and spontaneity. The opening of the third movement lacks the utter magic of Beechamís inimitable rubato, but it has a pleasing freshness and the finale, taken at a speed which allows for clear articulation, is powerful and brilliant. The final sea-storm and shipwreck are quite overwhelming.

My introduction to Elgar was an Ace of Clubs LP which coupled "Cockaigne" with the cello concerto (Anthony Pini) and the "Wand of Youth" suites, all under van Beinum. I couldnít have had a better start. No allowances have to be made for an "interesting outsiderís view"; here is a totally idiomatic, vital performance of the overture, at home in the swaggering moments as in the withdrawn poetry of the loversí theme. Incredible that van Beinum could evoke with such ease the high noon of an Edwardian London for which he would surely have searched in vain among the grey rigours of Mr. Attleeís post-war reconstruction in 1949. But then, perhaps we should stop thinking that Elgar is "about" Edwardian England; he speaks a universal language and any "outsider" who wishes can understand it.

I havenít said anything about the two overtures and frankly a general complaint I would make about this series is the compilersí tendency to waste space on lighter works which add nothing to our knowledge of the conductor. The ability to give good, lively performances of the overtures to Mignon and The Merry Wives of Windsor (though lacking the ultimate in Gallic grace in the former and in Viennese inflexions in the latter) says little; indeed, when you think what the likes of a Beecham could do with similar material, it says much by omission.

Beecham, Boult, Mengelberg Ö Alan Sanders in his notes suggests that the decline in van Beinumís reputation may be due to the fact that he made very few stereo recordings. I suggest that it may be because his wide range of excellent recorded performances do not actually include any that have not been surpassed by somebody else. Beecham, Boult and Mengelberg (just to stick to conductors with whom I have made comparisons in the course of the review) all left such recordings. Is there a van Beinum recording, even just one, that stands as a benchmark, a model for all time? If there is, it isnít included here. Sanders tells us that his performance of Bartókís Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has "unsurpassed tension and rhythmic drive". So why didnít we get it? Maybe van Beinum really does belong among the "Great Conductors of the 20th Century", but the present set fails to carry the case.

Christopher Howell

Great Conductors of the 20th Century Series

 



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