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Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Sibelius and Brahms
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47 (1903 rev 1905)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Violin Concerto in D Op. 77 (1878)
Isaac Stern (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
Recorded in London in August (Sibelius) and November (Brahms) 1951
SONY SMK87799 [70.54]


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Isaac Stern once had a poor rehearsal of the Beethoven Concerto with the RPO conducted by Beecham. Going to apologise the conductor patted him aside and said things would be better in the following morning’s rehearsal. Come the morning and the violinist was handed a meticulously marked score. Beecham had been up into the small hours noting points to the librarian to mark. Stern played the rehearsal magnificently and remembered the incident for the rest of his life – one of the highlights he said of his career. Which might seem odd, when one considers Beecham’s reputation for slovenly indifference and the sometimes-fashionable opinion of him as incapable of handling symphonic super-structures.

No sign of that here. In the case of the Sibelius he was, Stokowski’s then-unissued slightly earlier recording notwithstanding, a discographic pioneer. His recording with Heifetz, a scintillating collaboration and easily the greatest of their not untroubled recordings, remains devastating to this day. This later 1951 traversal with a very different violinist is on a lower level of engagement. Though he was to re-record it in 1969 with Ormandy and the Philadelphia I’m not convinced it was Stern’s kind of work. Some of the syntax of the opening movement seems subtly but unambiguously to elude him. This is not a question of different phrasal emphases because their accumulation does sap the movement of motivic strength and for all Stern’s agility and intelligence the movement remorselessly fails quite to cohere. Some passages are rushed through, others are overemphatic, as if his interpretation is not yet centred or settled – and the result is that some phrases are not given their full value for all the frequently glorious tonal resources at Stern’s disposal. As a result of all this the conclusion of the movement is not suitably climactic. I felt much the same in the Adagio – magnificent depth of tone but inadequate engagement with the material and, most surprisingly for the violinist, he fails to ignite the finale in that spirit of unstoppable, granitic inevitability that the best performances generate.

He recorded the Brahms three times, firstly with Beecham, secondly with Ormandy and the Philadelphia in 1959 and finally with Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Here Stern really comes into his own. Brahms was always one of his strongest interpretations. I well remember the quizzical look Stern shot the Festival Hall audience on one of his last London visits after a performance of the Op 108 Sonata with Emanuel Ax – to rather tepid applause the look seemed to say "Not good enough for you?" With Beecham’s big, plush conducting Stern digs into his arsenal of colouristic devices, his battery of tonal reserves. There is considerable tonal effulgence in the first movement (though Beecham can be a little dogged in the tuttis) but when it comes to the cadenza Stern is truly aloft. The naturalness of his phrasing in the Adagio is magnificent, his tone superbly equalized; tremendous warmth. And the finale is properly bracing and alive, technically splendid, stylistically apt.

No complaints about the remastering or about Graham Melville-Mason’s notes. This disc catches something of the sympathetic collaboration that existed between both musicians and the Brahms is certainly a standout recording.

Jonathan Woolf



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