It’s fifty years since Beecham’s death, and EMI is marking
the occasion in fine style with a number of boxed sets devoted
to his performances and memory. Somm continues its Beecham Collection
legacy in ways that are proving nothing short of revelatory.
However valuable may be the permutations of commercial releases,
whether singly or in sets, little can match the excitement of
a live performance of a major symphonic work new to the conductor’s
discography. Such is the case with Schubert’s Ninth which, rather
astonishingly given his excellence as a Schubert conductor,
he never recorded in the studio.
So let me simply say off the bat that this is a fantastic performance.
It was recorded at the Royal Festival Hall in December 1955
and all Beecham admirers must hear it. The opening movement’s
tempo is quite measured but flexible, the orchestral choirs
are in fine voice, notably the exchanges between yielding, insinuating
winds and the adamantine horns. There is an inbuilt motor that
ensures that the music is directional but there is a fine sense
of characterisation throughout. The wind phrasing in the slow
movement is ideal, with just the right sense of freedom – Beecham
always gave them time to phrase – and the string playing is
lissom. There’s nothing at all mannered about any of this –
a critical word that does occasionally crop up from the pens
of unsympathetic Beecham auditors – and indeed it’s playing
of great refinement, imagination and flexibility; also of graded
climaxes and apposite weight. The violas and cellos really play
superbly and enshrined here is a great sense of drama and momentum,
a sense continued in the scherzo. Here the sway and swing are
most appealing, the trio highly engaging, rhythms neatly pointed.
The brass proves its form in the finale, trenchant but rounded
of tone, never over-balancing ensemble. Really superb all round,
and a major addition to the conductor’s legacy.
If this were not enough there’s a first class account of the
overture to Rienzi (RFH, 1956), appositely strong, with
Philip Jones leading the trumpets and Dennis Brain the horns.
And then there’s the exquisitely beautiful Edinburgh Festival
1956 performance of Delius’s In a Summer Garden. It’s
so disarming a performance, so full of pregnant intensity, and
so rich in its refined legato, that critical words are fairly
irrelevant. Arthur Leavins led the fiddles and the great wind
players phrase with remarkable tone, but presiding over all
is Beecham who directs with timeless sensitivity. He seems indeed
to conjure the music into life.
The next three Somm–Beecham discs are devoted to a complete
performance of Grétry’s Zémire et Amor; a disc that includes
a Handel Concerto grosso, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 and
Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole; and the final one will give
us Saint–Saëns’ Third Symphony, d’Indy’s The Enchanted Forest
and some Grieg and Berlioz. The promise is outstanding,
but meanwhile the realisation of this current disc is everything
the conductor’s admirers could wish for.