Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.9 in C major D.944 (1825–28) [49:56]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Rienzi - overture (1842) [11:48]

Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
In a Summer Garden – rhapsody RTV1/17 (1908 rev. 1909) [13:58]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
rec. 14 December 1955, Royal Festival Hall, London (Wagner); 6 December 1956, Royal Festival Hall, London (Schubert); 24 August 1956 Usher Hall, Edinburgh Festival (Delius)
SOMM-BEECHAM 29 [75:38]

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.

Jonathan Woolf

A fantastic performance of Schubert 9.