MusicWeb International One of the most grown-up review sites around 2023
Approaching 60,000 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here Acte Prealable Polish CDs

Presto Music CD retailer
Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             



Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.4 in A minor op.63 [33:04]*
Symphony No.6 in D minor op.104 [27:31]**
BBC Symphony Orchestra*, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra**/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 4 October 1951, The Criterion Theatre* (studio performance); 15 September 1954, Royal Albert Hall**, London (live performance from a Promenade Concert). ADD
Not previously issued. Released in collaboration with the Sir Thomas Beecham Trust in support of the Scholarship Fund.
Error processing SSI file

Take note that these are not the celebrated studio recordings of these symphonies but are being issued for the first time. I have already seen it suggested in some quarters that the recordings themselves are so poor as to render this a disc only for the most patient of specialist collectors. This seems to me an exaggeration. It is true that dates of 1951 and 1954 fall well within the LP/tape era, raising higher expectations; these recordings have been preserved on acetates, and well-worn ones too, especially that of no. 4. In the case of no. 6, quite honestly the 1947 studio recording was not awfully good for its date and I canít see that the present one is all that different Ė both crack up in much the same way at Beechamís savage triple forte at letter I of the finale. It would not stop me preferring what I find to be a superior performance.

The case of no. 4 is more complex. The 1937 recording was good for its date, and while the honest reportage of the Naxos transfer reveals it as somewhat shallow and shrill, the transfer by Anthony Griffith for EMI - I am speaking here of that issued as part of the Beecham Edition on CDM 7 64027 2, I donít know if more recent reissues have altered anything - is full-toned and has a wide dynamic range. There has been more intervention, but of a wholly sympathetic kind. By 1951 microphones were able to capture a wider range of harmonics and there is evidence that this is a wreck of a recording that was actually rather good. In certain places, the opening of the finale for instance, it momentarily sounds better than the older one, but elsewhere, and especially where the music is at its most hushed, a heavy swish is all-pervasive, dynamics are restricted and there is overloading and some distortion at climaxes. Youíd better work out from this description whether you are willing to take this in your stride. Personally, even in this case, I would still listen to this in preference to the earlier one for the finer performance. After all, if you canít stand historical sound you wonít want any of these.

In my earlier listening days the Beecham no. 6 was almost as elusive as the 8th Symphony which we will never know. Set down for RCA it was never issued in the UK and only became regularly available when EMI acquired permission from BMG to include it in the above-mentioned Beecham Edition in 1991. A hearing of extracts during a BBC "Interpretations on Record" during the 1970s left me a little uncertain as to its merits but of course I investigated the Beecham Edition when it came out. I must say I remained a little perplexed. Of course it was very fine, but there seemed a certain tendency to press on, to do something with the music at all costs rather than let it unfold in its own way. Symptomatic might be the crescendo Beecham substitutes for Sibeliusís "più piano" 5 and 6 bars before letter A of the first movement, as if he is afraid people will be bored by a single chord lasting two whole bars unless he does something with it. Significantly, in the 1954 performance the chord remains piano for at least a bar and only swells - less than before - towards the end, an indication that this time things will be better but still not entirely right. As the timings show, in this performance Sir Thomas allows himself a little more space to shape each movement:

1947 07:01 05:54


09:43 26:14


06:11 03:46 10:07 27:31

This is entirely to the musicís benefit. If at times in the first movement a more spacious performance still seems to be trying to get out, if only the conductor would allow it, Beecham nevertheless finds a greater degree of mystery and grandeur both here and in the second movement. The change is least felt in the third movement, but this was already a steady, unhurried affair in 1947, while in the finale Beecham surpasses his former self by a very considerable degree. The storms rage more fearsomely and the ending has a greater fervour and poetry. If in the last analysis the 1947 performance was not quite one that I would quote as evidence of Beechamís genius as a Sibelius conductor - which is not to deny that even without genius he was still better than most others - in 1954 the finale seems to be up there with his finest.

The 1937 4th was already a magnificent performance. In this symphony Beecham showed no desire to "do things" with the music, he just let it speak directly and powerfully. His identification with its world was total.

Differences of timings between the two performances do not all go in the same direction this time:



1937 09:58 04:06 09:35 08:35


1951 09:42 04:15 09:45 09:22 33:04

Whatever the timings say, in movements I, II and IV the two performances nonetheless have an identical character, with a certain further refinement of nuance. This increased care over detail actually imparts a quite different character to the third movement, which is now revealed to conceal a tense drama below its still, frozen surface. Beecham is more interventionist in 1951, but his identification with the music is so complete that this in no way comes between the music and the listener. It simply results in heightened and deepened perceptions.

This seems to me an important record for the light it casts on two great symphonies and one of the composerís greatest interpreters. For me this overweighs any sonic limitations, but maybe each listener will have to work that one out for himself.

Christopher Howell

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf




Return to Index

Error processing SSI file