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Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Dvořák, Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Symphonic Variations Op. 78
Mily Alexeyevich BALAKIREV (1837-1910)

Tamar – symphonic poem
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Le Coq d’Or Suite
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded 1951-54



Sony’s splendid exploration of Beecham’s legacy continues with a disc that Graham Melville-Mason subtitles in his notes Beecham and the Czechs and Russians. The plural in the case of the former includes details of his performances of Smetana (a Covent Garden The Bartered Bride with Tauber is currently available) and Weinberger, of whose Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree he was, as was Barbirolli, very fond. Though he never appears to have conducted the complete Ma Vlast cycle he did programme Vltava, Šárka and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields. Of all post-Dvořákian composers it would, I suppose, have been most exciting to have heard him conduct Novák – whose In the Tatra Mountains would have been ideal for him. But we must make do with what remains.

The Symphonic Variations was something of a test piece for British conductors on disc. Henry Wood’s recording was no mere run-through but Beecham’s proves to be imbued with greater vivacity and subtlety and characterised with the RPO’s very special instrumental resources. That said Beecham omits variations 13 and 20, a minor but still noticeable deficit. The performance is genial and well coloured with moments of excellence in No. 12 for leader David McCallum, father of the actor of the same name (the Zimbalists are not the only violin-father and actor-son dynasty) and also for the principal trombonist, Sidney Langston, in Number 15. And the climax is especially well judged – it’s a pity the variations aren’t separately tracked here.

Beecham’s enthusiasm for Russian music was marked. The Balakirev Symphony in C recording is a Beecham staple of the catalogue and was taken into the studies the year after this recording of Tamara. Beecham conducted Tamara in the concert hall and in the ballet pit (he’d first introduced it in 1912) and his long and vivid experience shows in this recording, made fully forty-two years later. Jack Brymer is on delectable form as he coaxes some folksy inflexions (try 5.30) and there’s zestful and idiomatic rhythm, crisp accents and a finely dramatic mid-section, with superb playing all round. Beecham keeps a fine control of the structure, which is never allowed to sag. As with Tamara Beecham had affection for Le Coq d’Or. He conducted the opera in 1919 and 1942 but the orchestral suite turned up consistently over the years. Those who know his Scheherazade recording will know to expect colour and vivacity, imagination and pictorial brush strokes. It’s a shame that there is a 16 bar cut in the opening movement but there is compensation enough in the string and wind tenderness, as well as the glower of the brass and ultimately the leisurely unfolding of the wind lines and the trippingly witty strings. The second movement King Dodon on the Battlefield is notable not only for the sheer subtlety of the martial music but also for Beecham’s silken glazed strings and the exploratory sonorities of the third movement, the most consistently exciting in terms of Rimsky’s exploitation of eastern and western musics. Though he does slightly cut the opening of the Bridal Procession fourth movement there’s still plenty of benevolent swagger to go round.

This is a well-documented and cannily programmed entrant into the happily formidably well-equipped Beecham catalogue – long may it continue.

Jonathan Woolf



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