Wilhelm Furtwängler had been booked to appear in London in
January 1955 with his Berlin Philharmonic. But, as Graham Melville-Mason
relates in his booklet notes, death intervened and so it was
that his closest British colleague, Thomas Beecham, took over
the two concerts unchanged. In addition to the works performed
in this disc, he also performed Beethoven’s Eroica,,
Brahms’ First Symphony, the Tannhäuser overture and also, most
intriguingly — for both conductors — Barber’s Essay for
Orchestra No.2. Maybe the excluded pieces will appear in
another volume devoted to the concerts.
The selected pieces do however materially add to our knowledge
and experience of Beecham’s art. The Handel Concerti Grossi
were relatively well known territory and he programmed them
individually quite frequently between 1914 and 1955. Furtwängler
seemed to specialise in Op.6 No.10 and both his wartime and
post-war RIAS recordings excised one of the Allegro
movements creating a five, not six movement structure. Beecham
has no truck with this, restoring the missing movement, and
playing the work in a far more incisive, rhythmically alert
way. Handel was not Furtwängler’s metier though he doggedly
kept on at it. Beecham’s front desk men can be heard most candidly
in the Lento third movement — the RPO was led by Arthur
Leavins and the second fiddles by Oscar Rosen, Frederick Riddle
led the violas and John Kennedy the cellos: not a bad team.
Incidentally there is a harpsichord in there as well, which
might amuse those who believe Beecham likened its sound to that
of copulating skeletons.
Rather surprisingly, he seems to have conducted Strauss’s Don
Juan only twice in his career and Till Eulenspiegel
around 13 times. My view may not be shared by other listeners
but, in spite of his greater familiarity with Till,
it’s Don Juan that emerges as somewhat the better performance.
It seems a touch more subtle, though the percussion is close-up
and this leads, as it does in the companion tone poem, to some
uncomfortable moments of near overload. The percussion really
booms in Till and, for all the panache and drive, it
lacks a degree of composure.
Beecham’s digs at Bach’s ‘Protestant Counterpoint’ notwithstanding,
he performed the Third Brandenburg Concerto. It’s certainly
unusual repertoire for him but he acquits himself well. The
bass line can be hefty, but this strong-boned account is well
worth hearing. In the case of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole
he seems more at sea. This was his only performance of the work
so one should note his willingness to honour Furtwängler’s programming
ideas, but the results are rather tepid. Clearly neither his
heart nor his head was engaged by the work.
Still, this disc charts new territory for the Beecham collector,
and does so in good sound.