Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerto Grosso, HWV319-30 Op.6 No.10 (1739) [16:11]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Op.28 (1894-95) [14:33]
Don Juan Op.20 (1888) [16:46]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G BWV 1048 (1711-13) [9:45]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Rapsodie espagnole (1907) [15:27]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
rec. 18 and 20 January 1955, live, Royal Festival Hall, London
SOMM-BEECHAM 31 [73:19]
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.
Jonathan Woolf
This disc charts new territory for the Beecham collector, and does so in good sound.