Sir Thomas Beecham conducts French Music
Music by Berlioz, Bizet, Delibes, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Massenet, Gounod, Chabrier, Fauré, Franck, Lalo, Grétry and Vidal
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1936-1959, Paris, London. ADD
Full track list at end of review
EMI CLASSICS 9099322 [6 CDs: 75:08 + 64:58 + 70:23 + 77:35 + 71:27 + 48:13]

Sir Thomas Beecham died fifty years ago this year. This is one of several releases on different labels to commemorate that anniversary.

Beecham may have cultivated the image of the relaxed, spontaneous, near-amateur music-maker, but behind this artifice lay a musician of enormous skill. His phenomenal ability to read and assimilate scores coupled with an astounding memory were largely natural gifts. As a conductor his technical skill seemed natural too, but was no doubt highly studied and developed and backed up by sound and meticulous preparation. Add to all this his enormous personal attractiveness and charisma and it is little wonder that he was a favourite amongst orchestral musicians and audiences alike.

Beecham’s repertoire was wide and varied, but one feature certain to emerge in any collection of his performances was his magical way with music we might describe as “light” or “less demanding” or even “second rate”. Beecham himself assigned the word “lollipops” to these occasional pieces - attractive rather than great. This kind of music was rarely far from his concert programmes, and it would receive the same loving care in preparation and performance as would the greatest works, his own personal touch bringing out the sparkle, or the pathos, and convincing the listener of the work’s merits in the process. There is a lot of this kind of music in this collection, and welcome though it is, I wonder if there’s not rather more than we really want. Two extracts from Samson et Dalila show Saint-Saëns’ cod-ethnic style at its most outrageous, and other extracts from some admittedly great romantic stage works by the likes of Berlioz, Gounod and Massenet find their way in too. In the “Farandole” from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne listeners will note a famous Beecham characteristic, a tremendously subtle – and hence tremendously exciting – acceleration towards the end. Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse may have been the inspiration for Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the incidental music Léo Delibes composed for it is significantly less challenging. It is lovely and charming all the same, music guaranteed to cheer you up when nothing seems to be going right, particularly in such a performance as this. Grétry, and the Toulouse-born composer, now all but forgotten, Paul Vidal, are among others to contribute examples of the genre.

Some pieces, despite their brevity, are too serious in intent or too accomplished to count as “lollipops”. Neither Fauré’s Dolly nor his Pavane are profound works, but the quality of their invention and craftsmanship raises them onto another plain. Beecham is incomparable in works such as these. He sets down a ravishing, if rather robust and literal, performance of Debussy’s famous Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and indeed seems more at home with the exotic colours of L’enfant prodigue, an early work less typical of the mature composer. The performance of Chabrier’s España was set down in 1939, and is given with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the third of the four orchestras he created. The reading is full of verve, but ensemble and tuning are not impeccable and would have merited a retake in later times. I expected more magic, too. It is not quite the earliest performance here, as the Berlioz Carnaval Romain dates from 1936. Here, Beecham gives us an early example of his wizardry. He maintains a steady tempo for the major, rapid portion of the work, which, with its deliciously chattering woodwind and impeccable ensemble, reminds us that this is not a race or a gallop, but a carnival, teeming with people having a good time. And then, in the final bars, comes that tempo change again, so subtle that we barely notice it, but guaranteed to provoke a cheer at the end, the final cadence as brilliantly handled as it also is in the performance of Le Corsaire from more than twenty years later.

This collection is short on major works. Bizet’s deliciously Mendelssohnian symphony, written when the composer was only seventeen, is predictably successful in Beecham’s hands. He allows himself more leeway with tempo in the scherzo than is customary nowadays, but his control of pulse is immensely subtle. In the slow movement, for example, he raises the emotional temperature by ever so slightly pushing the tempo forward, an effect that might sound excitable in other hands, but which is here idiomatic and natural. The French orchestra, with whom he enjoyed a fruitful relationship in the final years of his professional life, obviously adored playing for him, even if the ensemble and unanimity in the strings in the helter-skelter finale are occasionally less than impeccable. Listening to the chattering woodwind throughout the Symphonie Fantastique there can be no doubt that it is a French orchestra playing; alas, even French orchestras sound like all the others nowadays. The first three movements are absolutely marvellous, with Beecham particularly skilful at managing the bewildering changes of mood in the first movement and whipping up the excitement as much by careful emphasis on the accompaniment figures as by the melodic line. The waltz, at a steady tempo, is beautifully pointed, and the “Scène aux Champs” marvellously atmospheric. I was disappointed by the last two movements though; at steady speeds both sound determined and dogged and quite lacking in the tension generated earlier in the work, and this despite the conductor’s trademark sprint for the finish in the final bars. The orchestra plays like heroes for him though. The G minor Symphony of Lalo and the D minor of César Franck – actually Belgian, and only French by naturalisation – come from the same series of sessions. The Franck was a favourite of Beecham’s throughout his life. The glowering opening leads to a performance of exhilarating sweep and panache. For many years this work seemed to me, despite the attractiveness of its ideas, little more than orchestrated organ music. One sees the error of one’s ways – with age – and it is performances such as this one that help along the way. He makes the best possible case, too, for Lalo’s symphony, but not even his committed advocacy can overcome the blatant paucity of invention in pursuit of admittedly serious intent.

The booklet accompanying this handsome release contains a detailed track list as well as an endearing and informative article about Beecham, translated also into German and French, by Lyndon Jenkins. As is now customary, each disc slips into its own sturdy cover inside the main box.

The sound quality is very consistent and often remarkable for its time, though the usual allowances have to be made for the earliest recordings. Admirers of Beecham will already have much of this music in their collection, but newcomers wondering what all the fuss is about will find it more than useful. It’s very bitty, with relatively little music of real substance, but the famous Beecham magic is everywhere present.

William Hedley

Full track list

CD 1 [75:08]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [52:28]
French National Radio Orchestra
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 30 November – 2 December 1959
Overture: Le Corsaire, Op. 21 (1831) [7:51]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 7 November 1958
Les Troyens: Trojan March [4:26]
Les Troyens: Royal Hunt and Storm [10:00]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Beecham Choral Society
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 23 March and 19 November 1959

CD 2 [64:58]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Symphony in C (1855) [27:36]
French National Radio Orchestra
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 28 October and 1-2 November 1959
L’Arlésienne – Suite No. 1 (1872) [19:05]
L’Arlésienne – Suite No. 2 [17:06]
rec. Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, 21 September 1956

CD 3 [70:23]
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Le Roi s’amuse – Ballet Music (1882) [13:38]
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 12 and 16 May 1958
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [10:27]
rec. Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, 25 March 1957
L’enfant prodigue – Cortège and Air de Danse (1884) [4:16]
rec. Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, November 1959
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Samson et Dalila : Danse des Prêtresses de Dagon (1877) [2:26]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 20 October 1958
Samson et Dalila : Bacchanale [7:22]
rec. Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, 23 November 1959
La Damnation de Faust: Danse des Sylphes (1846) [2:59]
La Damnation de Faust : Menuet des Follets [5:39]
rec. Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, 25 March 1957
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Cendrillon: Valse (1899) [5:29]
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 9 October 1957
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust: Ballet Music (1859) [13:32]
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 9 October and 3 November 1957
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

CD 4 [77:35]
Georges BIZET
Carmen: Prelude and Entr’actes [10:33]
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 10-12 January 1958
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Overture: Gwendoline [9:24]
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 9 September 1957
Gabriel FAURE (1845-1924)
Suite, Dolly, Op. 56 [17:37]
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 1-4 December 1959
French National Radio Orchestra
Le Rouet d’Omphale, Op. 31 (1872) [9:22]
Joyeuse Marche (1888) [3:44]
rec. Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, 23 and 25 March, 1957
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
España (1883) [6:05]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 30 November and 19 December 1939
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Georges BIZET
Patrie, Op. 19 [12:33]
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, 12 October 1956
Roma – Carnaval (1868) [7:14]
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 9 October 1957
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

CD 5 [71:27]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1888) [38:29]
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphony in G minor (1886) [26:59]
Gabriel FAURE
Pavane, Op. 50 [5:09]
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 1-4 December 1959
French National Radio Orchestra

CD 6 [48:13]
Overture: Le Carnaval Romain, Op. 9 (1844) [8:59]
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 27 November 1936
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Overture, Le Roi Lear, Op. 4 (1831) [15 :47]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 10 September and 11 November 1947
La Vierge: Le dernier sommeil de la Vierge (1880) [4:36]
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 11 April 1947
André-Ernest-Modeste GRETRY (1741-1813)
Zémire et Azor: Ballet Music (ed. Beecham) (1771) [13 :13]
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, 12 October 1956
Paul VIDAL (1863-1931)
Zino-Zina: Gavotte [2:09]
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 7 October 1957
Charles GOUNOD
Roméo et Juliette: Le sommeil de Juliette (1867) [3 :14]
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 5 October and 23 November 1959
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra


Lots of Beecham magic in a varied collection of French music, but are there too many “lollipops”?