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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

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


Experience Classicsonline

I welcomed the opening box in EMI’s 50th anniversary tribute to Beecham which was a documentary biography of the conductor, as mediated through witnesses, critics, executant musicians and admirers. The solid business of organising his repertory has led to decisions that will doubtless lead to questions along the lines of ‘what about X’, where X = Sibelius, or Dvorák, or Handel, or even Elgar.

Let me note here that no new remastering has taken place. If you have previous EMI CD releases of this material from 2002 and 2007 then you will rest easy with your copies; the material from disc 6 however dates back to 1991-92 work, and this disc does include some of the earliest recordings in the set – Berlioz and Massenet from 1947 - so perhaps twenty years on would have been a good time to have tried to re-master afresh.

Crying for what’s not in this set of boxed albums shouldn’t blind us to what is, familiar though much of it is. One very useful thing about this all-French collection is the handy, cheap and unassuming way it presents so sizeable, and various, a slice of the conductor’s recordings. Note that many are not with the RPO, but with the French National Radio Orchestra, taped when Beecham was living in the South of France. Remember that glorious sleeve cover picture of the compact Baronet shaking hands with a vast, bearded gendarme?

There’s little real middle ground here between the symphonic and the lollipop. The first disc leads with the Symphonie fantastique. Beecham recorded this twice with the French orchestra, and this is the stereo version. The mono was taped in 1957, though there was, I notice, a patching session the following year, which was almost exactly a year before he embarked on this completely new version. Truly Beecham’s recording schedules and shenanigans were the stuff of legend. Did any other conductor have so many recordings on the go as this man, spinning like plates in the recording booths of London, Paris and elsewhere? He never recorded the work with any of his British orchestras. You’d have thought he’d be keen to record it with the LPO in the 1930s but no, he seemed to save it up for Paris. More Berlioz completes this first disc, all with the RPO this time – Le Corsaire, dashing and debonair, and extracts from Les Troyens.

There’s a similar symphonic logic at work in disc two; Bizet’s genial Symphony in C leads off followed by the two L’Arlésienne suites, the former work delightfully dispatched by his French orchestra and the latter by the RPO. By the third disc we arrive at more miscellaneous matters. Delibes is represented by a characterful performance of Le Roi s’amuse from 1958, there’s a delightful Debussy Faun, a feisty Saint-Saëns Bacchanale from Samson and Dalila and also the Act V Ballet music from Gounod’s Faust, music with which Beecham was very familiar indeed; it was the first opera he’d recorded back in 1929-30. In the fourth disc there is the Act I Prelude and the three Entr’actes from Carmen, a first class Chabrier Gwendoline and a sun-drenched España. Also here is one of the last recordings he ever made, Henri Rabaud’s orchestration of Fauré’s Dolly Suite. This was a work Beecham said he’d played four hands with the composer, and there’s no reason to doubt him. He spent many hours in Parisian music libraries as a young man investigating congenial old repertory, music that was to journey with him throughout his life. One such composer was Grétry, whom he loved, and he loved to perform especially Zémire et Azor. A frequent concert closer was the first Air de ballet, which gets quieter and quieter, and thinner and thinner of texture, until it seems to vanish into thin air. This 1956 version is too plush and over-sophisticated; the pre-war recording is the one to get. But it’s good to hear more from the work, the last operatic work he conducted in Britain, in Bath in 1955. This is from the last disc, but the penultimate one, the fifth, gives us the powerful Franck Symphony in D minor, coupled with Lalo’s less formidable and forbidding G minor. Beecham had made a famous 78 set of the Franck with the LPO, and had first conducted it back in 1912. To close this disc, there’s a beautiful performance of Fauré’s Pavane.

Lyndon Jenkins’s five page booklet sets the scene appropriately. In short, then, this collection has been well chosen, utilising established (or older) transfers, and is very competitively priced.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by William Hedley

Full track list
CD 1 [75:08]

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 FAURÉ (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]
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
French National Radio Orchestra /Thomas Beecham
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham




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