The Beecham Collection: Byways of Beecham
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Le Corsaire Overture, Op. 21 [8:09]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) An Old Norwegian Folksong with Variations, Op. 51 [17:53]
Vincent díINDY (1851-1931) La ForÍt Enchantťe. Symphonic legend after Uhland, Op. 8* [13:42]
Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921) Symphony No 3 in C minor, Op.78** [36:07]
Denis Vaughan (organ), Tom McCall and Douglas Gamley (pianos) **
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
*BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 7 March 1951, Royal Albert Hall (Berlioz); 27 November 1955, Royal Festival Hall (Grieg); 21 October 1951, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London (DíIndy); 20 October 1954, Royal Festival Hall (Saint-SaŽns). ADD
SOMM-BEECHAM 32 [76:11]
The Somm label has unearthed some more buried Beecham treasure Ė and itís pure gold!
This latest issue in their Beecham series will be of particular interest to Beecham devotees because it includes two pieces Ė the díIndy and the Saint-SaŽns Ė of which, so far as I know, the eminent conductor made no commercial recording. Furthermore, though he took the Grieg piece into the studio I think the resultant recording is, perhaps, one of his lesser known ones.
The Berlioz overture was a staple of the Beecham repertoire, though he didnít conduct it until 1946, according to Graham Melville-Masonís valuable notes. Thereafter he performed it some sixty times and he made three recordings of it. The present performance is full of vim and vigour Ė though thereís also light and shade at the appropriate points in the score. Beecham whips up some real excitement in this reading and the last couple of minutes in particular are tremendous.
I have to confess that I didnít know the Grieg at all. Mind you, I can take a little comfort from the fact that Sir Thomas seems to have come to it late as well; he only took it up in 1955 and, in fact, he performed it on only three occasions Ė all in that year Ė making a studio recording in between these live performances, of which the present one was his second. The work in question was written in 1890 for two pianos and the orchestral version was made between 1900 and 1905. I wouldnít say itís a neglected masterpiece but it is an engaging piece and just the sort of music that Beecham could do so well, bringing it to life. In this performance the RPO woodwind section plays with great finesse and the string choir is on pretty good form too. Beecham characterises the music very nicely and the subdued, tender ending is quite magically done.
Beecham played music by díIndy from quite an early stage in his conducting career and he first conducted La ForÍt Enchantťe (1878) in 1907. Subsequently he met the composer. This particular piece remained in his repertoire until 1951; indeed, the last time he gave it in public Ė in a concert he gave with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - was the day before he made this studio recording, also with the BBC SO. The recorded sound is not as good as on the other pieces in this collection, as Somm admit in the booklet. There is some distortion at times but, nonetheless itís very valuable to have this unique example of Beecham in this work. He imparts plenty of drive and is clearly committed to the score; furthermore heís alive to the poetic passages. Despite the sonic limitations it was well worthwhile issuing this performance.
Itís a little surprising, perhaps, that Beecham never recorded the Saint-SaŽns Third Symphony, a work that one might feel to be tailor-made for him. However, the symphony was neither as well-known nor as popular in Beechamís day than has subsequently become the case. He first performed it in1913. On that occasion the composer was present and thereís a delicious anecdote about that performance in the booklet Ė for once Beecham was on the receiving end, though he delights in telling the story nonetheless! The symphony has its detractors but I like it, especially when itís given with panache and empathy, as here.
The RPO strings are in fine fettle in the first movement and thereís also some sparkling woodwind playing to enjoy. I donít know why Somm donít track the second movement separately - it starts at track 4, 10:37. Like most conductors Beecham rather ignores the Ďpocoí element of the Poco adagio tempo indication and takes the solemn theme broadly, a decision that the richness of the RPO strings vindicates. The organ is well integrated into the ensemble sound. The recorded sound may not be as sumptuously integrated as in a modern digital recording but we can still enjoy a fine, affectionate performance Ė note how Beecham gets the orchestra to play con amore (especially 17:46 Ė 19:09). The third movement is ebullient and full of Beecham verve. The booklet notes relate how great care was taken to get the sound of the Festival Hall organ just right and in view of that the great chord that opens the finale is something of a disappointment; it sounds like an electronic instrument. How much this is a reflection of the instrument and how much itís to do with the age of the recording Iím unsure. In fairness, I suspect itís more the latter and when, just for interest, I compared this recording with a live Boston Symphony Orchestra performance given just a few months earlier (review) I found there wasnít much to choose between the two. When the organ joins in the Big Tune (1:09) it makes a more positive impression. The finale as a whole is hugely enjoyable Ė the old maestro conducts with vigour and flair Ė and I enjoyed it very much even if the recording does get a bit overloaded at the end.
As Iíve hinted, the recordings do have their limitations. Tubby-sounding timpani are a frequent feature and the strings sound a bit glassy at times in the Berlioz overture. The díIndy suffers from some distortion, as previously mentioned. Overall, however, the recordings have come up remarkably well given that theyíre nearly sixty years old. Forget any sonic limitations: what really matters here is that we have four fine and very enjoyable Beecham recordings, including two significant additions to his discography. Beecham admirers, what are you waiting for?
John Quinn
Some more buried Beecham treasure Ė and itís pure gold!