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An excellent disc

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Piano Concertos 1 and 2
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A Garland for John McCabe


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The best Rite of Spring in Years

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alternatively Crotchet



Beecham, Flagstad and Wagner; The Beecham Collection
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
The Flying Dutchman Overture (1843) [9:57]
Lohengrin; Prelude to Act I (1848) [9:24] ¹
Wesendonck-Lieder (1857-58) [20:01] ²
Tristan und Isolde; Prelude (1859) [9:11]
Tristan und Isolde; Liebestod (1859) [7:28] ²
Kirsten Flagstad – Talk on “Singing Wagner” [10:43] ²
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) ²
RPO/Thomas Beecham
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Beecham ¹
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, November 1954 (Flying Dutchman); live, Royal Festival Hall, November 1953 (Lohengrin): Studio 1 Maida Vale, London, December 1952 (Wesendonck-Lieder and Tristan); BBC radio, 1949 (Flagstad talk). ADD
SOMM-BEECHAM 20 [67:33]


I feel rather like Howard Carter when a new Somm-Beecham arrives: peering at “wonderful things”. This latest volume certainly has plenty of those and in conjunction with Flagstad we have wonderful and memorable together.

Much of the surviving Beecham Wagner material has been frustrating; either issued as a Fritz Reiner Tristan Siamese-twin (the pre-War Covent Garden, not always available in its original all-Beecham format) or not reissued at all (the post-war live Mastersingers anyone?). Here however we have some fascinating glimpses of Beecham on the wing. The Flying Dutchman Overture is from the Festival Hall in 1954. It doesn’t differ in outline or timing from the commercial recording made in the same year which you can find on Sony SMK89889 but though laden with some coughs and a degree of high level hiss you will a slightly greater level of tensile strength and evocative painting in the live performance, good though the Sony remains. The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin was taped live in the same location almost exactly a year earlier but this time not with his RPO but with the BBC Orchestra. Here one has to note that the Sony transfer has given the commercial recording a rather odd and synthesized string tone; the Somm is far more natural with the BBC orchestra playing with magnificent engagement for Beecham. The live traversal is a minute quicker as well – in every way a memorable reading.

We are also fortunate to have the Prelude and Liebestod  from Tristan und Isolde where in the latter Beecham and the RPO were joined by Flagstad. The location was the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in 1952. The only possible demerit is an entirely technical one; the sound is rather congested and it serves somewhat to constrict the aural perspective. There were a few clicks as well. But as performances both are incandescent and surpassingly lovely – passionate and yet structurally entirely convincing. Flagstad soars with seemingly effortless ease over the orchestra and casts spell upon spell upon her hearers. The Wesendonck-Lieder came from the same broadcast and it’s trebly valuable because this was not a work that Beecham much performed. The acoustic is a touch boxy but nothing too serious. Flagstad sings Stehe still! in particular with resplendent command and eloquence – effulgence and radiance is how I described this in another review. She is in excellent voice and she and Beecham take consistently fleeter tempi than she was later to do in the studio in Vienna. Beecham encourages some deliciously swoony portamenti in Der Engel. Theirs is a thoroughly convincing and notable collaboration. There are other extant performances by Flagstad of course – notably that Knappertsbusch/Vienna Philharmonic recording of 1957 and the (original) piano accompanied 1948 recording with Gerald Moore. The other release alluded to is Guild GHCD 2300/2, a three CD set otherwise devoted to Met meterial – which makes the Somm box rubric Previously Unissued Recordings (front of box) and First Authorised Release (on the back) somewhat difficult to reconcile. 

To end we have the 1949 Flagstad BBC Talk on “Singing Wagner.” Snippets of this have been heard before, I’m certain, but not the entire 10:43. She is a fount of straightforward and practical advice, spiced with dry humour. Yawning is a natural position for the voice, she says with startling candour and adds that singing out of the porthole of a ship is good a practice for long voyages. Much more as well.

I’ve no idea what’s next from this constantly surprising series of Beecham releases. Live Arnell perhaps? What about Beecham’s collaboration with his soloists, to join the Schumann-Lympany already issued – Katherine Goodson in the Brahms Piano Concertos, Busch in the Violin Concerto, Pougnet in a live Delius, John Pennington in Mozart, Campoli? Are any of these extant one wonders.

One thing’s for sure – this series offers the highest of rewards.

Jonathan Woolf



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