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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 6 in D minor op. 104 [27:33]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor op. 63 [33:04]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham (6)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham (4)
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, Prom, 15 Sept 1954 (6); Studio, Criterion Theatre, London, 4 Oct 1951 (4). mono. ADD
Not previously issued. Released in collaboration with the Sir Thomas Beecham Trust in Support of the Scholarship Fund.


This is an important disc for admirers of Beechamís credentials as an elevated exponent of the Sibelian symphonic canon. Neither symphony was exactly uncultivated by the conductor who left recordings of both. Indeed his travails over the Fourth are the stuff of legend and have been well documented. It may have been that which gave rise to the allegation that Sibelius referred to him as a first fiddle conductor but itís certainly the case that relations between the two were more than cordial. If there are no explosive revelations here, in view of the known recorded evidence, in quite the same way that there was with regard to the recent Stokowski-Cala re-release of the first two symphonies then thatís because, as noted, we know much of Beechamís approach through commercial and live performances and also because of the distinctly less than spectacular sound accorded the Fourth.

This is a definite pity because if we contrast this October 1951 performance, recorded live off-air in the Criterion Theatre with the BBC Symphony, with both the pre-War commercial Columbia and, even more interestingly, the slightly later 1955 RPO live performance we find that it could very well be the best of the three. The orchestra had just lost Boult, removed on reaching retirement age, and not a conductor especially partial to Beecham. They are on fine form, strong and characterful and having begun to recover from post-War privation. Iím not sure who was the principal cello then but he makes an eloquent sound at the opening and one should on no account overlook the wind principals who are so adept in the first movement. The powerful peroration in the Poco vivace is spine-tingling stuff and Beechamís sense of rhythmic impetus courses throughout the finale which becomes, in his hands, something of a master class in the screwing up and relaxation of tension. To demonstrate that his ideas in this work remained fluid, one needs to point out the far greater sense of concentration in the later RPO reading, also live, where he tightens the first and the third movements by almost a minute each and drives through the finale that much quicker as well. Itís clearly not the case that this 1951 BBC reading is in any sense provisional, rather that here was a particular occasion that gave rise to a specific sense of greater expressive and expansive response. The deficiencies of the recording are however palpable: hiss, a constricted spatial response, a rather shallow sound and some pits and damage to the grooves. These deficiencies are duly noted in the documentation and are so here; the performance however is superb and I urge you to hear it.

The Sixth is really no less fine. Beecham is inclined to be trashed as a symphonic conductor for some perceived lack of formal, symphonic control. Thereís a degree of truth in that in repertoire with which he was broadly unsympathetic but Ė first fiddle jibes apart Ė itís really not remotely the case in his Sibelius recordings, all of which demonstrate acute structural control and a canny sense of rhythmic tension. The Sixth was recorded live at one of Beechamís very few Prom appearances in 1954 with his RPO, an orchestra seemingly built to respond to the Sixth. The strings have great purity, the winds marvellously evocative individuality and so far as Beecham is concerned he reprises those qualities that informed the Fourth: dramatic sweep, control of individual nuance, mastery of rubato, warmth, and tensile accumulation. The result is a wholly symphonic utterance rendered without dislocation or fracture, with incidental beauties serving the greater whole. It also attests to things so often missed about Beecham: sheer hard work and preparation.

The Sixth is in much better sound than the Fourth Ė some coughs are of relatively trifling account. The usual fine notes from Graham Melville-Mason are another asset. You may be deterred by reservations concerning the sound quality of the Fourth but perseverance will brings its rich reward, especially because this is the finest Beecham Fourth that I know.

Jonathan Woolf

see also Review by Rob Barnett




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