Sir Thomas Beecham – The Great Communicator
With extracts from the works of Edvard Grieg, Felix Mendelssohn, Jean Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Frederick Delius, Antonín Dvorák, Giuseppe Verdi, Georges Bizet, George Frideric Handel, César Franck, Giacomo Puccini, Jules Massenet, Joseph Haydn, Hubert Parry, Emmanuel Chabrier, Carl Maria Von Weber, Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, Franz Joseph Haydn
CD 1 [75:05]

Early Life - The Beecham Symphony Orchestra
Early opera seasons – The London Philharmonic Orchestra Covent Garden
Mozart in Berlin
CD 2 [79:36]

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Marking parts
Beecham’s improvisatory conduction Lollipops
In the US
The National Anthem
Conducting technique
The Grande Messe des morts
Conducting choruses
Beecham’s Handel arrangements
Beecham as a guest composer
CD 3 [79:39]

Delius – French music
Beecham’s breadth of repertoire
German Music
Scandinavian Music
CD 4 [79:36]

In concert
The late opera recordings
Beecham’s 80th birthday
EMI CLASSICS 9 09964 2 [4 CDs: 75:05 + 79:36 + 79:39 + 79:36]

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Beecham’s death EMI has released a series of boxed sets devoted to his art. Others cover the particular areas of repertory in which he demonstrated a particular affinity, but this one is more in the way of an aural documentary. There are numerous excerpts but almost none is heard in its entirety. There are frequently fade-ins under the spoken documentary words of Jon Tolansky, or his guests, or the same thing happens to punctuate the extracts. For this reason I have not given the full titles played, which not only saves a great deal of typing but would, in any case, otherwise be misleading. The track timings also include the spoken reminiscences or documentary, so don’t necessarily think that this is a separately tracked ‘words and music’ documentary. It segues. The other boxes feature music heard in its entirety, and I shall be reviewing some in due course.

The discs are divided into convenient chapter headings – Early Life, LPO, RPO and so on, themselves broken down into sub-headings, such as Covent Garden, Marking Parts, Conducting Technique. Beecham’s life is, I think, fairly well known, so it’s best to concentrate on the elements in this box that make it attractive to prospective purchasers.

Firstly, you hear from a number of ‘witnesses’. One hears, for example, from Paul Strang, Beecham’s son by the beautiful soprano Dora Labbette. One also hears from the formidable Eva Turner, taped a number of years ago, whose particularity of articulation is still remarkable. Her contribution, recorded not too long before her death I believe, has been released before. Then there is violist Leo Birnbaum, one of the founder members of the LPO, who talks engagingly about the membership of the orchestra. Trumpeter Richard Walton recalls that Beecham could be a ‘tartar’. In this first disc there’s a brief interview with the late Giovanni Martinelli – I think it’s a phone conversation, and not in the best sound. The drollest anecdotes concern Tauber’s salvaging wit during the stormy rehearsals for the Covent Garden Bartered Bride (he bested TB through charm and guile) – and also the ‘wandering trombones’ story that Norman Walker recalls.

The second disc reprises a besetting fault throughout the set, which is the constant authorial repetition of the ‘unprecedented’ nature of the orchestral sound Beecham produced. With each successive orchestra it is so, though the most obvious case is the LPO. The hyperbole is a demerit, not least because it’s repetitious. The same thing was often said of Beecham’s own eponymous Symphony Orchestra back in 1909, and anyone with an interest in British orchestras will know it was said of Hamilton Harty’s Hallé when it came down south from Manchester in the late 1920s and gave the London orchestras a sound drubbing. It was also said of Boult’s newly formed BBC symphony. It was also said of Toscanini’s visiting New York Philharmonic-Symphony, the high standards of which ensemble apparently traumatised the native critics. So people have been saying that ‘unprecedented’ standards of excellence have been established for time immemorial. It’s funny, though, that no one says that now, about any orchestra, anywhere.

It’s good to hear from Raymond Ovens, erstwhile leader of the RPO. It’s appropriate to note the meticulous marking up of parts in which Beecham indulged into the early hours; he was always insistent that his ‘hard work’ was seldom appreciated. Balance and phrasing are constant refrains. One must also note that disc 2 contains a never-before-released extract from the close of Act II from Die Entführung aus dem Serail which is enlivened by a conductorial quip about Bishop Wilberforce, and a joke about ‘all gas and gaiters’. Well worth hearing if you feed on Beechamesque rehearsal scraps such as these - which I do. There is also an explosive rehearsal of the Divertimento in D – also making its first appearance – in which Beecham gets nasty, threatening to ‘break up the session’.

Similarly unreleased is the talk on A Village Romeo and Juliet on disc three, which is followed by a long extract from the recording it prefaced. It attests to the great sympathy that existed between Delius and Beecham. Also unreleased is the aria Rose chérie from Grétry’s Zémire et Azor, a 78 from 1927 preserved by Labbette and then by her son, Paul Strang. She thought it one of her finest recordings and it’s wonderful to hear her pure, focused tone once more. This piece was a Beecham, favourite. Felix Aprahamian, John Lucas and David Cairns all attest to Beecham’s communicative power.

The final disc, the fourth, is particularly interesting for exploring how little preparation time Beecham had with the singers in his classic recording of La bohème. Victoria de los Angeles, the Mimi, and Lucine Amara, the Musetta had virtually no time with him at all. He was particular about voices, as the previously unpublished correspondence between EMI’s David Bicknell and Angel Records in America – read on track 10 – attests. He didn’t want Björling – because it wasn’t an Italianate voice, one assumes – but did want Gedda. He got Björling. He didn’t want Kerstin Meyer, but did want de los Angeles, whom he did get. Gedda admired him, though concedes that people today will probably find the tempi too slow. Vickers was a man after Beecham’s own heart – an iconoclast. Vickers thought Beecham wouldn’t want him for Messiah but Vickers was wrong; he’d heard the Canadian in the staged version of Samson at Covent Garden, an interpretation that, many years later, I also witnessed, and enjoyed his ‘non English Oratorio’ vocalism. Finally we hear the RPO presentation to Beecham on the conductor’s 80th birthday – 100 cigars – before the conductor and band got down to a multi-patch session. It does no harm to remember the often bizarre nature of his recording activities. At one time he had fourteen separate recordings on the go.

I’m sure that, at its modest price, you will learn new things here about Beecham. There are those small previously unpublished morsels, but there will surely be more to come either from this source or from others, such as Somm. I always worry, when recommending boxes such as this, that it’s something of a ‘once only’ set; that you will listen to it, enjoy it, but never have much occasion to replay it. Despite the repetitions and exaggerations, there is certainly plenty to interest the listener, though amplification of its central message comes via the music in its sister boxes in the series:-

Sir Thomas Beecham conducts French Music 6 CD set 9099322
Sir Thomas Beecham: The Classical Tradition Mozart/Haydn 10 CD set 9099462

Sir Thomas Beecham: The Later Tradition 8 CD set 9186112
Sir Thomas Beecham conducts English Music 6 CD set 9099152

Jonathan Woolf

You will learn new things here about Beecham.