is a deliciously nostalgic issue: hearing again the Serenade
which so many seemed to be whistling or humming in the 1950s;
the sound of a turntable; the occasional distortion of sound
with full orchestra at forte; thinking of Beecham’s
determination to show Covent Garden what they had lost. So
much nostalgia, so much to enjoy.
was the 1949 BBC broadcast with Beecham conducting the Royal
Philharmonic, the orchestra which he himself had formed only
three years previously in the aftermath of his fall-out with
the new Covent Garden management. It was not that he had
a musical point to prove, but perhaps there is an added frisson
to his conducting in those years: certainly it appears so
on these discs.
is music that he understood thoroughly with his particular
love of French composers. Here is a group of singers from
whom he extracts some of the strongest performances. When
reviewing the re-broadcast in 1979 Philip Hope-Wallace wrote
that Beecham could give this music “…delicacy and vitality
all his own” – a quote in the accompanying leaflet which
cannot be improved upon.
are now nearly another thirty years on since Hope-Wallace
wrote his review. Whereas he also wrote that the “…recording…does
not sound its age…”, I think that it now does. Standard 1940s
BBC English sounds just that. The more than occasional very
refined accents of both Gwen Catley (Catherine Glover) and
Lorely Dyer (Queen of the Gypsies) gives this away. It does
not offend: it is yet another example of the ‘delicious nostalgia’.
is a digitally re-mastered issue. Whilst in my ivory tower
and listening with the volume turned up on not particularly
sophisticated equipment I can occasionally hear the turntable
and the very occasional ‘thump’; but what I do not know is
how good or how bad the original discs were and therefore
how much has been achieved by the re-mastering. What I can
say without fear of contradiction is that what has been achieved
gave me great pleasure as it will to disc purchasers and
listeners. The occasional turntable noise and hiss brought
back happy memories and helped to date this recording which
is better for that. It is another delicious reminder that
we have the privilege of Beecham, early Lewis, Brannigan
Lewis indeed: not young Lewis: he was 35 at the date of this
recording and effectively at the start of his distinguished
career. Mellifluous was his voice - everyone says so – and
so it is here. Clear diction, powerful dynamics, controlled
and balanced interaction with co-singers, with tone and colouring
second to none.
the hero needs lyricism and Lewis delivers it in bucket-loads
then the heroine needs coloratura, but not the dramatic coloratura
of recent years; more the early lighter and brittle coloratura,
particularly for the ‘mad’ ballad. This is just what Catley
provides: a sound with the potential for some mischievous
flightiness that can be tipped over into the demented. She
leaps to mid-note, trills and when Bizet demands the run
of accidentals for the discomforting sound of the
asylum-bound she throws them off almost nonchalantly.
elsewhere, at forte, the coloratura sound is a little
piercing, it is more than compensated for by stunning piano high
notes and vocal acting sharp focus. With Lewis the combination
of voices achieves a remarkable balance – a perfect example
of which is the Valentine request (track 4). Altogether a
performance to relish.
same can be said of Dyer’s Mab, Queen of the gypsies. Without
the same opportunity for florid vocal display Dyer’s performance
is strongly supportive and her scene with Jones demonstrates
an excellent clarity of sound with diction to match.
would be anachronistic to say that Brannigan’s Simon Glover
is a reminder of his Gilbert and Sullivan recordings for
Glyndebourne because they succeeded this performance by some
ten years. However, there is an undoubted Gilbert and Sullivan
flavour in this opera as there are traces of other composers
throughout: both pre- and post- the 1866 composition. It
is almost a case of putting on an anorak and going composer-spotting:
Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Wagner to name a few plus Bizet’s
later Carmen. However, I digress.
uses his big bass to great expressive effect in the smaller
role of Simon Glover (Catherine’s father). Norman Walker
(Ralph) is the other main bass role and his deep brown voice
carries off the drunken scene with total conviction. With
Brannigan he does all that can be done to rescue the start
of Act 4 with its unimpressive musical writing.
they are vocally effortless, the same cannot always be said
of Trefor Jones (Duke of Rothsay). Notwithstanding the occasional
vocal stress, his distinctive timbre and resonant baritone
is an excellent foil for the voice of Lewis. The early quartet
(track 6 Lewis/Jones/Catley/Dyer) can be described as musical
fun as well as precision singing and strong dynamics.
Chorus are in fine disciplined voice: crisp, accurate and
enthusiastically making an urgent contribution. All that
said we must return to the orchestral contribution. Beecham
and his Philharmonic are on excellent form: from strident
chords to smooth, almost voluptuous, string sounds. Now driving
forward and now holding back and giving perfect support to
the diction makes a libretto almost unnecessary, perhaps
the accompanying leaflet synopsis could have been a little
fuller and the opportunity taken to include the names of
the soloists with the track details and/or the track numbers
included in the synopsis. Also the track breaks themselves
are not always where you would expect them to appear but
this may well have more to do with the original discs.
would like to conclude with another quote from another critic:
this one appears on the Beulah web-site and is of Alan Blyth
writing in Gramophone in December 2000: “… play … (the
track) … where the Serenade is reprised by the tenor and
soprano to Beecham’s tender accompaniment and you’ll be captivated,
as I was.” I cannot improve upon that: go on, play it all
and risk being captivated by so much more.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
and get a free CD
Follow us on Twitter