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Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Sibelius, Arnell and Berners
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

The Tempest (1926)
Richard ARNELL (b 1917)

Punch and the Child (1948)
Lord BERNERS (1883-1950)

The Triumph of Neptune (1926)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded 1950-54
SONY CLASSICAL SMK93009 [76.00]

 

Recorded between 1950 and 1954, in London and Philadelphia (a rare example of Beechamís work in that city) this is an example of perspicacious programming. What the works share is the balletic. Sibeliusí The Tempest was written for a production at the Royal Theatre Copenhagen in 1926 and it was Beecham who introduced it to British audiences eight years later. He was still playing it twenty years later when he took part in the 1954 Sibelius Festival with the Helsinki City Orchestra. The same year that The Tempest premiered in Stockholm, Lord Bernersí The Triumph of Neptune opened in London under Diaghilevís aegis Ė the only English ballet he commissioned other than Lambertís Romeo and Juliet. The book was by Sacheverell Sitwell and choreography was by Balanchine; Stravinsky was one of the many who were impressed by it. Later on it was one of the pieces toured by Beecham, even during his (in)famous 1936 and 1937 German tours. He recorded it soon after the end of the second continental tour. Meanwhile Richard Arnell has always credited Beecham with encouragement and help. Beecham took up a number of the composerís works and played them in New York and London. Punch and the Child was not actually a Beecham commission but it has links with the Berners, having been first performed by Balanchineís New York City Ballet. The music from the ballet was given its British premiere by Beecham in 1949 and this recording followed in May of the following year.

All three performances are vivacious and beautifully played examples of Beechamís idiomatic understanding. The Sibelius features those famous principals in characterful form albeit Beecham does rather chop and change the pieces Ė thereís no Prelude and other movements (Harvesters and the Interlude) from the first suite and the Dance Episode from the second are also missing. Nevertheless we can admire the hints of strength and menace in Calibanís Song and the strange power held by The Oak Tree. Similarly one feels that the soloists have sufficient room to breathe and to phrase in the Canon. The moulding of the Chorus of the Winds is splendid and the succeeding Intermezzo finds an emotive congruity with the preceding one in Beechamís hands. Thereís a delicious lilt to the Dance of the Nymphs and a wonderfully Handelian Prospero, full of baroque gravity. I particularly admired the play of upper and lower strings in Miranda and the accomplished Storm with which Beecham ends this invigorating performance.

Even though Beecham had recorded the Berners before the War, as indeed he had the Sibelius, itís still richly entertaining to hear the Philadelphians under his lead. Thereís fizz and sauce a-plenty here, not just in the bagpipery and singing of the Schottische or the drunken crooning of The Sailorís Return but also in the riotous Hornpipe and the reserved burnish of the strings in The Frozen Forest. This movement is notable also for the wind tracery and vague Russo-Englishry of the writing. The singer by the way is not identified here; it was R Grooters.

Arnell certainly wrote an arresting and punchy work, wonderfully evoking what Beecham later asked him to do with a work commissioned for the RPO to play at the 1956 Edinburgh Festival; Write me a Concertante piece for the orchestra, to show them off well, but not a symphony, my boy. There are too many British symphonies this year, or any other year, for that matter. (Cheltenham ones presumably) In that case he wrote Landscapes and Figures but Punch and the Child serves almost as well in its transported form from ballet to concert work. This is a driving and vivacious piece of writing fully reflecting the outsize theme of the ballet. All sections get a chance to impress, from delicious winds to muted brass to the increasingly malign patina of the Second Scene. This works very well as an orchestral tour de force with its flourish and drama, the bold burnish and melodrama intact. Amidst all the tumult though is the serene and moving Recapitulation, Barber-like in its serenity.

Graham Melville-Masonís notes are a constant adornment to this series, introducing just the right weight of incident and historical detail. Both the Arnell and Berners were last available on Sony SBK62748 but this is another splendid entrant in the uniform Beecham series from Sony.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett

Sony Beecham CBS Edition

 



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