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’
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.
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.
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
Franz Josef HAYDN Symphony No. 94 in G major Surprise
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
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]
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
rec. 4 November 1959
Edouard LALO (1823-1892) Symphony in G[26:44]
rec. 25 October 1959