Pristine Audio here provides ample evidence what a fine Mozart conductor Beecham was. I'd suggest this is because his interpretations are determined to demonstrate Mozart was a dramatic, melodic composer. It is as if his symphonies are operas without texts. Arising from this, pace is often vividly fast, sometimes provocatively slow.
For me in 1951 Beecham treats Mozart’s Paris Symphony
as if it were a military one. Has the opening movement ever been delivered with more punch? The violins’ tremolando
against rising figures in woodwind and lower strings is thrillingly displayed. It's like the majestic amassing of a battle line while the strength of the fermenting running quavers in the string bass is equally spine-tingling. Sadly the slow movement is just too slow. Pristine Audio state the tempo as Andantino,
a controversial marking; some conductors consider it slower than Andante,
others faster. Beecham considers it slower and this renders its effects a little calculated. The high first violins’ musing and descents are searching and starry but the full strings’ unison ascents which follow (tr. 2, 1:34) are gruff and ominous, as if the ball before the battle is marred by hectic preparations outside. Since the Bärenreiter urtext we know this movement’s marking is Andante
but that wasn’t published until 1957. I compared a 2010-11 recording by the Danish National Chamber Orchestra/Adam Fischer (Dacapo 6.220544
) where the movement takes 4:42 against Beecham’s 7:03. It’s altogether lighter and more restful, the rising unison strings only mock gruff. Yet Beecham regains magnificence in the finale. His earlier edition’s marking Presto
rather than the urtext Allegro
is beneficial in sheer excitement: the battle now in full swing. The soft opening is nervy, the playing beginning and continuing at the edge of capability of articulation. The fugato of the development (tr. 3, 1:38) is deadly earnest and how exciting the scything interchange of strings and woodwind from 2:07. Andrew Rose’s re-mastering is to my ears a touch brighter yet less glaring than Sony SMK 89808
(no longer available) as are the other symphonies formerly on CD in other Sony couplings
Zest is the dominant feature that characterizes the outer movements of Beecham’s 1953 Haffner symphony
. You’re gripped by the sheer pace, yet one which never seems rushed for the swaggering, swashbuckling manner of the violins. Then there are the neatly pointed contrasts: the strings on their own with responding phrases often smooth and calm, the tutti
s bold yet not menacing. In the first movement you appreciate the calm deconstruction of the opening theme late in the development (tr. 4, 3:05) and the uninhibited gurgling clarinets as they rush up half the scale (1:30).
The slow movement shows Beecham’s mastery of soft-grained texture. The sforzandi
are acknowledged as nudges to enhance appreciation of the overall line, not threats to its comeliness. The second theme (tr. 5, 0:48) is dainty without becoming twee. The Minuet is slower than we’d expect today yet its tutti
s have grandeur without being over-sturdy and the strings soft responding phrases are silky. The Trio is graceful and dreamy, the sforzandi
in the second violins gentle prods. The finale beginning could be the archetype for many later symphonies: soft opening which then excitingly bursts into energy. The second theme (tr. 7, 0:32) is treated lightly yet with great enthusiasm and the whole progress becomes a series of adventures experienced with terrific zip.
I prefer this to Beecham’s 1938-9 recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Dutton Laboratories CDEA 5001, no longer available). The 1953 contours are smoother, the recording more immediate. Beecham was a shade faster in 1938-9 but this creates more tension in the outer movements. The earlier slow movement is more insistent as it progresses, the Minuet stiffer.
Beecham’s 1954 Linz symphony
offers the most striking example of strongly characterized Mozart interpretation. From the first movement introduction bold, virile tutti
statements are contrasted with engaging, curvaceous feminine reasoning largely by the violins. The first theme of the movement proper begins playfully but is repeated with massive affirmation, powered forward by the strength of the running quavers in the bass. Yet while the second theme (tr. 8, 2:57) begins in heavy gesture, in turn it is halted by a softer, more flexible manner.
The slow movement is more dreamily expansive and meditative, less gracious than we’re used to today. Beecham scrupulously plays it Poco adagio
which is the tempo given by editions of the time. Since the Bärenreiter urtext, we know the movement should be played at a faster Andante,
but that text was published in 1971. In Beecham’s favour, not a flicker of variation of mood is missed and in the development there’s a strong sense of the fascination of probing uncertain territory.
The Minuet is quite elegant but today seems a touch too grand and portly. Beecham’s 1938-9 recording with the LPO (Dutton CDEA 5001) is less courtly but has a heartier thrust. Charles Mackerras was the pioneer in the faster Minuets now in fashion. Beecham’s 1954 Minuet heard first time here with repeats takes 1:40. Mackerras conducting the Prague Chamber Orchestra in 1986 (Telarc CD 80148) takes 1:08. Beecham’s tempo suits the Trio well in a lovely, naturally unfolding presentation. Furthermore this allows for more contrast in a finale of great brio. Beecham also brings a starry quality to its melodic profusion and inventiveness. Of particular interest is the second theme (0:46) or rather group of themes as is the way the second cluster (0:56) waltzes along at first and then becomes more forceful with the counter-theme above.
In bonus tracks, Pristine Audio shows us Beecham’s approach to Mozart was already fully established much earlier. From 1915 we have The Magic Flute
overture. Its introduction is at first imposing, after which its more melting material is intently treated. The Allegro
fugato first theme is incisive, the imitative counterpoint always clear. The second theme (tr. 12, 2:09) is appreciably delicate, leading to a comely duet between flute and oboe while the first violins’ tremolo
in the exposition codetta (2:48) shimmers excitingly. You only really become aware of the deficiencies of the recording horn used in the acoustic process in that the crotchet rests between the trenchant chords of the tutti
s tend to be swallowed up. The Divertimento Minuet and Trios from 1916 sport jolly but also spirited horns, to which the strings’ response is sweet, affectionate and rather sentimental. The second Trio is notably dreamy. The requirement above all of The Marriage of Figaro
overture is that the articulation be nifty and tutti
s full of life. The 1916 Beecham Symphony Orchestra account can match any later ensemble in these respects and plays at a true Presto
. The the actual playing time of the music is 3:50. It radiates a sense of terrific spirit rather than virtuosity for its own sake. Even the shimmering fp
effects in the strings which open the second section (tr. 14, 0:45) come across clearly while the lyrical third theme (1:24) is made more attractive by subtle use of portamento.
The wind playing isn’t as astonishingly crisp and agile as that of the strings, but the balance between winds and strings is pretty good. The intricate manoeuvres of the Fandango from Figaro
’s Act 3 finale are neatly executed in a 1917 recording, though a modern recording brings more humour when the bassoon trilling along with the violins is more apparent.
Masterwork Index: Symphonies 31, 35 & 36