Sir Thomas Beecham's aristocratic interpretations have always been an acquired taste - one that not everyone, perhaps, could acquire. His elegant phrasing won him staunch admirers, but didn't always suffice in repertoire of inherent stature. He conducted little Beethoven - just a few even-numbered symphonies - and his extant recording of Symphony 2 (EMI) lacks the strong projection one might have expected. The big Romantic blockbusters - Ein Heldenleben, the Symphonie fantastique, the Franck D minor - leave similarly mixed impressions, the French works suffering further from the mediocre playing of the Orchestre National.
On the other hand, Beecham excelled at the deft, flexible turn of phrase that could reanimate music previously thought of no particular consequence, enthralling the listener in the process. He was famous for his "Lollipops", short, lighter pieces that served as audience-pleasing encores; ballet suites, dance movements, and other orchestral excerpts from large stage works also benefited from such ministrations.
The best things in the present program are, as it turns out, the shorter, more graceful pieces - many of which, incidentally, aren't otherwise generously represented on disc. The adjective "lightfingered" kept popping into my mind, as if the conductor were literally nudging the music with a gentle hand to elicit nuance.
Léo Delibes composed the seven movements of Le roi s'amuse as incidental dances for a production of the Victor Hugo play. They channel the Renaissance dance spirit in Romantic orchestral garb; think the Stokowski manner, minus the goo. In Beecham's hands, the opening Galliarde suggests the more ceremonial pages of the composer's Coppélia; the string-drenched Pavane suggests a hymn chorale in a dignified Elgar transcription. The Lesquercade is sprightly, though the tapping tambourine doesn't quite catch the final ritard with the other players. The minor-key passages of the Passepied offer a brief change of mood. Throughout the suite, elegant, poignant woodwind playing is a consistent delight.
The two short dances from Berlioz's Faust rarely receive such considerate attention as this. The Dance of the Sylphes is patient, tender and spacious. Pointed rhythms enliven the Menuet of the Will-o'-the-Wisps, where the violins' legato theme at 3:06, for once, dominates the continuing woodwind interjections. The coda is lively without being driven as in most other performances; the first brass interjections, however, are slightly late.
The Gounod ballet music, again with nice rhythmic pointing, is gracious. Now and again, one wants a bit more motion; but the sequence concludes strongly with an impulsive Les Troyennes, the chipper Variations du miroir, and a rousing Danse de Phryné. The poised, wistful waltz from Massenet's Cendrillon deserves more frequent airings.
It's the more substantial pieces that don't come off as well. Beecham's expansive Faun is a bit too languorous at 10:27 - compare Ansermet's liquid, aspiring Decca account, which makes its points in 9:00. The climax at 5:32, however, is strongly drawn. The conductor phrases the following notoriously difficult passage - the woodwind triplets, slurred in pairs, want to get unstuck from the broad string melody - with an astonishing plasticity. And it's nice to have the companion excerpt, from the early cantata L'enfant prodigue, available separately.
Sir Thomas brings out the undulating long line of the Bacchanale's introduction without sacrificing boldness. But the first statement of the theme, after 2:12, is a bit untidy, while the broad second subject loses momentum; at least Beecham, unlike, say, Dutoit (Decca), keeps the various elements coordinated. The shorter Priestesses' Dance is finely turned though the first of the coda's two harp solos is noticeably, if slightly, late.
The Royal Philharmonic - the "orchestra that Beecham built" - mostly plays handsomely. As suggested, a number of small ensemble smudges are passed. Spanking-clean playing as such was apparently not the conductor's top priority. The low trumpets in Gounod's Adagio movement sound a bit sour and dispirited, as trumpets sometimes do in that range.
Stateside, the Angel (and budget Seraphim) LP pressings of many Beecham recordings sounded diffuse and grainy. Digital tweaking, however, has cleaned things up, proffering a bright, solid sonority in the stereo items. The monaural Massenet and Gounod selections sound good, but they're comparatively veiled, as if heard at one remove. There's some studio noise - clickings and such - audible during the Delibes, particularly in the space between tracks 6 and 7.
Stephen Francis Vasta