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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op.105 [20:23]
Tapiola, Op.112 [17:47]
The Oceanides, Op.73 [10:20]
Pelleas and Melisande Suite, Op.46 [27:33]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 19 Nov 1955, 25 Nov 1955 (Pelleas); 18-19 Dec 1955 (Oceanides); 21, 25 Nov 1955 (Symphony No. 7); 15, 17 Dec 1955 (Tapiola). ADD
Experience Classicsonline

A welcome reissue in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series. This compilation first appeared in 1990 as part of the old Beecham Edition and restored to circulation some of the conductor’s most enduring recordings from the 1950s, in remarkable early stereo. Beecham had performed the Pelleas music and Tapiola at Sibelius’s 90th birthday concert with the RPO in the Festival Hall at the time of making these recordings. The music could not help but be fresh in his and his orchestra’s collective minds. That concert is also available in its entirety on BBC Legends, for those wishing to contrast the commercial recordings with the live performances.

Now newly remastered, these vintage recordings sound fabulous. In the Pelleas and Melisande Suite sonorous strings in At the Castle Gate contrast with delicate woodwind playing elsewhere. The Death of Melisande is most affecting.

Beecham claimed Sibelius himself asked him to record The Oceanides. At the time this was the first version of the work to appear since Boult’s old BBC version in the 1930s; Sir Adrian himself set down another version with the LPO the following year. Although he never performed in concert, Beecham’s performance fully encompasses the work’s many facets, from the chattering woodwind of the opening to the tremendous climax towards the end.

It’s been customary to regard the performance of the Seventh Symphony as one of Beecham’s few Sibelius recordings that slightly miss the mark. It’s true that on a point-by-point comparison with the likes of Koussevitzky or Karajan, Beecham’s performance seems to operate at a lower level. However over the span of the work Sir Thomas’s cumulative control of tension, tempi and dynamics allows him to project the symphony as a single overarching structure, with the main points of tension and release arriving towards the end with the recapitulation.

The recording of Tapiola was not issued until after Beecham’s death, perhaps due to the lack of a suitable coupling. There can be no reservations at all about the quality of the performance; it is perhaps the finest on the disc and one of the great recordings of this monumental work on record. Beecham creates a mood of brooding intensity in the work’s opening pages which he maintains throughout until the storm section erupts in a fury. At the end, as in all good performances of Tapiola, we are left drained yet strangely cleansed by the power of the music.

Throughout this disc the performances are of the very highest standard, with Beecham’s accustomed sensitivity to phrasing and dynamics. Recordings have come up newly minted in these transfers, sounding richer and more spacious than ever. A Great Recording of the Century, beyond a doubt.

Ewan McCormick


EMI Great Recordings of the Century



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