Sir Thomas Beecham in Toronto
Track-listing at end of review
CBC Symphony Orchestra (CDs 1-2) Toronto Symphony Orchestra (CD 3) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (CD 4)/Sir Thomas Beecham
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1255 [4 CDs: 72:00 + 69:11 + 69:56 + 76:26]
There is a significant amount of live Beecham material in the vaults of broadcasting companies and other sources. The fiftieth anniversary year of his death in 2011 saw the release of many exciting things, not least BBC Maida Vale and Edinburgh Festival broadcasts, and a swathe of EMI boxed sets. There is doubtless still much to come because the Beecham Heritage industry is in rude health.
Shortly before his death Beecham visited North America for a series of concerts. It began in late 1959 and took in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle (his old conducting job back in the 1940s) and Washington DC. Then it was on to Canada, Toronto in particular as well as Vancouver, and then back to England where he gave only two more concerts: his last concert was in Portsmouth in May 1960.
The three CDs devoted to the Canadian concerts are supplemented by a free bonus CD documenting performances from 1958-59 with his own RPO. I’ll take each disc in order. The first presents a favoured triumvirate of composers for Beecham — Haydn, Mozart and Handel, the last handily hyphenated into Handel-Beecham. Haydn’s Symphony No.102 receives an affable reading, though some of the fortissimi don’t register very well, and some of the phrasing errs on the side of portly. It gets better as it goes along, albeit the timpanist is over-enthusiastic. Mozart’s Prague Symphony reflects his post-war style, which is often crudely written off as over-manicured. I find it very much depends on the Mozart symphony and the occasion on which it’s performed. Here the playing is engaging, and though it does lack that sense of the incision generated in many of his 1930s Mozart symphonic performances, it is nevertheless affectionately played. He performs a selection of his Love in Bath suite. The fullest example is his RPO stereo recording with 22 sections; here we have 10. On other occasions he performed a cut down seven movement version — one such example was a performance he gave in Ascona. I’ve never heard a sub-par performance of this music, as he always seemed to engage the felicitous assistance and sympathy of his orchestras, and the CBC Symphony is no exception.
The second disc starts with more Haydn, this time the Symphony No.94. His London Symphonies set had been recorded a couple of years earlier and one shouldn’t expect these touring inscriptions with an orchestra with which he was not overly familiar to be in any way as good. One can feel a tentative quality enter the phrasing and the question of precision of rhythm is one that recurs. The slow movement is rather too heavily indulged and he plays a bit safe with the Menuetto. Earlier, with the RPO, he had been very much more incisive and well drilled. The centrepiece of this second disc is an incandescent and marvellously convincing Love Scene from Feuersnot, nearly seven minutes of bewitching imagination that reveals, once again, his great affinity with the music of Richard Strauss. The final item in this disc is Brahms’ Second Symphony. There are other live examples of his way with this symphony and I’ve recently reviewed one; like that one, this Canadian version is largely successful, though a bit whipped up in places.
For disc three we move off to Lollipop Land. Here Beecham introduces and conducts a series of his sweetmeats. This was a filmed concert and I hope one day we will be able to see it: certainly, as I note below, other filmed examples from this tour have been made available. These ‘sedatives’ are introduced with great style and panache by Beecham. He is wickedly amusing about the ‘hideous title’ bestowed on Suppé’s Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna, and then he is repeatedly rude about the Viennese themselves. He praises Haydn as ‘a courageous old bloke, you know’ and is genial, relaxed, and a pleasure to hear. The final tracks consist of his spoken introduction to CBC’s Handel-Haydn Festival of June 1959, and then reminiscences from Léon Goossens and Neville Cardus in interviews with John Amis. Beechamites will know these by heart.
The bonus tracks on disc four come from BBC broadcasts given in 1958 and 1959. Some have been self-cannibalised from one of Music & Arts’ own previous discs. In fact only the Lalo Symphony (October 1959) missed that prior release. The Mozart Haffner is not as persuasive as his pre-war recording, but the Meistersinger Prelude is rousing and wholly successful, and his Delius North Country Sketches predictably outstanding. The Lalo was obviously a dry run, with his own RPO, for the commercial recording he made in Paris six weeks later with the French Radio orchestra. This is a well known and superb reading but to hear it with his own band is intriguing, as he generally recorded large-scale symphonic French repertoire at this time solely in Paris. His ideas were set by this time and there is an absolute sense of clarity and proportion about this RPO reading, from which he did not in any way deviate, barring recognition of the different tonal qualities of the two orchestras.
Incidentally for Beecham addicts interested in this North American tour, the 1960 Chicago concerts were broadcast on TV and released on video by Warner. You’ll find Love in Bath, Delius’s On the River, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture, Saint-Saens’ Le Rouet d’Omphale, Haydn’s Symphony No.102 and Mozart’s Symphony No.38. They are well worth getting hold of, especially as examples of Beecham with the Chicago Orchestra are super rarities.
The transfers by Lani Spahr (discs 1 to 3) and Kit Higginson (disc 4) are outstanding. The notes consist of a Wikipedia article, which is useful biographically but not when it comes to local matters, or Beecham’s health, schedule and repertoire whilst embarked on the last tour of his life. For followers of the conductor, however, this is a mandatory purchase.
For Beecham followers this is a mandatory purchase.
see also review by John Quinn
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 [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
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 Sketches [22:17]
rec. 4 November 1959
Edouard LALO (1823-1892) Symphony in G[26:44]
rec. 25 October 1959