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Sir Thomas Beecham in Toronto
see end of review for details
CBC Symphony Orchestra (CDs 1-2) Toronto Symphony Orchestra (CD 3) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (CD 4)/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1958-60
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1255 [4 CDs: 72:00 + 69:11 + 69:56 + 76:26]

Experience Classicsonline


Most of these recordings stem from a visit that Beecham made to Canada in 1960. I presume that the original source material for the first two discs is Canadian Broadcasting Company radio relays - there is no information on this point in the booklet. The programme in which he conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was television broadcast by CBC. In addition Music & Arts provide a ‘bonus disc’ taken from various BBC live broadcasts in 1958 and 1959.
 
Usually Music & Arts releases come with very useful booklet essays by expert writers who comment on the artists, on the background to the performances that are contained on the discs, and on the performances themselves. On this occasion, however, the notes are taken from Wikipedia and take the form of a general biography of Beecham. This, I feel, is a retrograde step and I hope it’s not going to be typical of future releases by this label. The result is that there is no information about the Canadian concerts in the booklet, which is a great shame. These came towards the end of a tour of the USA and Canada, which began in January 1960, details of which are given in John Lucas’s fine biography of the conductor, Thomas Beecham. An Obsession with Music (2008) on which I’ve drawn for the comments in this paragraph and the next one. In the closing weeks of the tour Beecham not only appeared in Canada but also had dates with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony. Lucas refers to two televised Toronto concerts at the very end of the tour but, otherwise, the only Canadian concerts that he mentions are two that took place in Vancouver in between the Seattle and Chicago dates.
 
However, leaving side any issues over the dates of Beecham’s various Canadian concerts, what is especially interesting in Lucas’s account is that Beecham was not in the best of health during the latter stages of this North American tour. Mr Lucas relates that Beecham was scheduled to conduct four concerts in Seattle in February but was obliged to withdraw from all but the first due to heart-strain. He was sufficiently well to fulfil his Vancouver engagements in late February/early March and it seems that the rest of the tour went ahead as planned but one suspects that Beecham was far from fit for, according to John Lucas, as soon as he returned to the UK on April 12 he cancelled a run of performances of Les Troyens that he was due to conduct at the Royal Opera House, starting at the end of that month. His reason for pulling out of this important project was that the symptoms that had manifested themselves in Seattle had recurred in Toronto and his doctor had ordered him to rest for at least a month.
 
It’s worth recounting this because to listen to the music - and to Sir Thomas as compère on Disc 3 - you would never imagine that he was not in good health. Having said that, the performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 102, which opens Disc 1, is not very auspicious. The slow introduction is imaginatively shaped but the Allegro is a bit stolid. I sampled Beecham’s 1958 EMI recording with the RPO and the difference is pretty stark. The tempo is virtually identical but the London players invest the music with so much more verve and sparkle. One must be fair and acknowledge that Sir Thomas and his hand-picked RPO knew each other well but even so I don’t think this Canadian performance shows Beecham at anything like his best. The CBC players make a nice job of II but the Menuetto again disappoints. Though the pacing is similar to that on the RPO recording here the tread sounds heavier and the music is lumpy. And then … all of a sudden the performance comes to life in the finale and the CBC orchestra scampers as lightly and deftly as does the RPO.
 
The performance of the ‘Prague’ Symphony is much less patchy than the Haydn. The Allegro of the first movement is spirited and, despite one or two untidy moments, enjoyable. The slow movement is shaped stylishly and is well played while the finale is delivered with no little brio. Beecham signed off with his own arrangement of Handel pieces and the Canadians seem to enjoy playing Love in Bath.
 
Perhaps the off-colour Haydn performance in the first concert was due to the orchestra needing more time to become familiar with Beecham - and he with them. Their delivery of the ‘Surprise’ Symphony, which opens Disc 2 is much better. The music sounds lively and it seems that everyone is much more at ease. Suffice to say I felt no need to make comparisons with Beecham’s 1957/8 RPO recording. The voluptuous Strauss excerpt that follows must have been something of a novelty to the Canadian audience and to the players. However, the orchestra does it justice and the performance is warmly received. Brahms would have been much more familiar territory. Beecham invests the first movement with real urgency at times. For the most part the orchestra plays well for him though the trumpets are a bit fallible at the end of the first movement coda. The Adagio is well done while there’s real vitality in the performance of the finale. The finale’s coda is a headlong affair with several audible shouts of encouragement from Beecham - this Allegro is indeed con spirito.
 
Disc 3 is sheer entertainment. This is the soundtrack from a studio concert that was televised by CBC - why was the CBC’s own orchestra not used, I wonder? Beecham was in irrepressible form, introducing the items in his own inimitable fashion. The programme had been advertised as ‘A Concert of Lollipops’ so Beecham delivered himself of a lengthy and highly amusing introductory discourse on the nature and origin of ‘Beecham lollipops’ When he finally gets round to some music making he’s just as entertaining. I particularly enjoyed his witty introduction to Le Rouet d’Omphale and he spins a most engaging performance. The Massenet, which he describes as “the lollipop of all lollipops”, is simply gorgeous. What’s particularly remarkable here is that in a matter of seconds, his introduction given, Beecham can switch from showman to sensitive musician. The Rossini overture is delivered with splendid gusto; Beecham clearly relished the piece. This disc may not contain any great pieces of music but it offers a marvellous example of Beecham as the shameless, roguish old showman. I loved it.
 
Tacked on to this disc we have a recorded talk by Beecham in which he introduces the 1959 CBC Handel-Haydn Festival - I don’t know if he actually took part in the festival. This is another bit of vintage Beecham. He loved the music of both composers and did much to promote their music at a time when neither was, perhaps, as popular as is the case today. Beecham was never one to be fettered by historical exactitude - or by ‘political correctness’ - as he demonstrates fully in this short discourse. As well as promoting the two composers he delivers a few lofty and delicious side-swipes en passant - one of his targets being the Viennese. It’s not clear when the two short interviews with Goossens and Cardus were recorded though I suspect it may have been in 1959 to mark Sir Thomas’s 80th birthday. It’s interesting to hear Goossens talk about Sir Thomas from a player’s perspective while Cardus contributes a wicked anecdote about Vaughan Williams’ ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.
 
For Disc 4 Sir Thomas is back with his RPO. All these performances emanate from BBC broadcasts. It’s interesting that the ‘Haffner’ Symphony was broadcast live on Christmas Day; that wouldn’t happen nowadays. There’s no trace of any excesses of turkey or plum pudding in the performance. The first movement is sprightly, the Andante is elegantly phrased and the finale is vivacious. I also enjoyed Beecham’s rendition of the Act I Prelude from Die Meistersinger. This bracing reading was distinguished by a total lack of pomposity. Beecham weaves his customary magic with a Delius score, albeit North Country Sketches is not one of the composer’s better-known works. I find the first and third movements are the most appealing. In the first of these, ‘Autumn’, Sir Thomas lavishes care on the textures and he brings out all the beauty of Delius’s writing in ‘Winter Landscape’. Lalo’s Symphony is not heard very often these days - and perhaps understandably - but it was the sort of work in which Beecham excelled and he leads a fine performance. Particularly notable is the nimble playing and expert articulation of the RPO in much of the second movement. Beecham’s reading of the Adagio is eloquent and impassioned. This is the only work on this disc that is followed by applause. 
 
This set is a very useful addition to the Beecham discography. The best playing is to be found from the RPO on Disc 4 but the Canadian orchestras generally respond well to their distinguished British guest. The sound has its limitations, as is only to be expected from radio broadcasts that are over fifty years old. However, the sound is perfectly acceptable and the recordings offer a good representation of what the radio audiences heard. The transfers by Lani Spahr and by Kit Higginson, who was responsible for the RPO performances, are successful. Beecham admirers will certainly want to add this set to their libraries.
 
John Quinn

Footnote
Since writing and submitting the above review I have seen a review of this set by David Patmore in the Winter 2011 issue of the magazine Classical Recordings Quarterly. Mr Patmore believes that these Canadian performances are “the last recordings that appear to be extant of Sir Thomas Beecham conducting, whether in the studio or the concert hall.” He points out that Beecham conducted only two more concerts before his death – in April and May 1960 – and that although more commercial recording sessions were mooted none of these plans came to fruition. It’s unfortunate that, because the booklet note accompanying this issue is so general in nature, purchasers of this set may be unaware of its importance in the Beecham discography.

Work list
CD 1
Franz Josef HAYDN (1732-1809) Symphony No. 102 in B flat major [24:08]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Symphony No. 38 in D major, K 504 Prague [25:25]
HANDEL/BEECHAM Ballet Suite: Love in Bath [22:26]
rec. 3 April, 1960
CD 2
Franz Josef HAYDN Symphony No. 94 in G major Surprise [23:39]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949( Love Scene from Feuersnot Op. 50 [6:43]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 [38:45]
rec. 7 April, 1960
CD 3
Lollipops
rec. 5 April 1960
Introduction by Sir Thomas Beecham [4:47]
Franz von SUPPÉ (1819-1895) Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna [8:10]
Introduction by Sir Thomas [1:53]
Camille SAINT SAËNS (1835-1921) Le Rouet d’Omphale, op 31 [9:57]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Alla Marcia: Karelia Suite, Op. 11 [4:17]
Introduction by Sir Thomas [2:47]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) La vièrge, Act IV: Prelude, The Last Sleep of the Virgin [5:35]
Introduction by Sir Thomas [2:00]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868) Overture: La Gazza Ladra [11:21]
Introduction by Sir Thomas to the CBC Handel-Haydn Festival, June 1959 [10:11]
John Amis interviews Léon Goossens [3:30]
John Amis interviews Neville Cardus [4:22]
CD 4
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART Symphony No. 35 in D major, K 385 Haffner [18:15]
rec. 25 December, 1958
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Die Meistersinger: Prelude to Act 1 [9:05]
rec. 4 November 1959
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) North Country Sketches [22:17]
rec. 4 November 1959
Edouard LALO (1823-1892) Symphony in G[26:44]
rec. 25 October 1959

 


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