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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77* [40:33]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73 [37:43]
Isaac Stern (violin)*
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1951 ADD/mono*, 1958/59 ADD stereo.
Download or stream only
BEULAH 14PDR4 [78:17]

Beecham conducts Brahms is another reissue on which Beulah restore elements of the Beecham legacy. Though he was not best known for his Brahms, this reissue, containing the Violin Concerto, with Isaac Stern and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1951 and Symphony No.2, again with the RPO in stereo in 1958/59, is well worth considering.

Brahms’ first symphony still bears the marks of the composer’s attempts to escape from the shadow of Beethoven, but in the second he became more characteristically his own man. In live performance Beecham reportedly brought the house down with this symphony and, while the recording may not quite capture those qualities, it is rather special, with the music almost jumping off the speakers. First released on HMV ASD348, it was reissued on HQS1143, which I owned. I’m glad to have it back, but you should buy it for the sake of Beecham’s Brahms rather than as the benchmark for the symphony per se.

Klemperer’s rather craggier approach would be my classic recording from the early stereo era (Warner 4043382, 4 CDs, around £15.50, or Beulah 2PD98, with Tragic Overture – from Qobuz). Or there’s Pierre Monteux, with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1959, coupled with his classic 1958 recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the LSO (Beulah 1PDR39: Recording of the Month – review : download from Qobuz).

Ultimately, Beecham makes the music a little too idiosyncratic, but the reissue is worth having just for the energetic end of the finale and for those little touches, here and elsewhere, where the conductor’s fingerprints are much in evidence. The RPO play out of their skin, as they always did for him, even though his rehearsal technique seems to have been minimal, at least on the basis of the recording that was made of it, where he spends most of the time joking.

The Violin Concerto, though recorded by EMI, was released in 1955 on Philips ABL3023, and was briefly available from Sony with the Sibelius Violin Concerto. It remains available with no coupling on G0100042656904, download only and, at over £11, it’s more expensive in lossless form than the Beulah, which offers much more music. Download the Beulah from Qobuz in lossless format for £7.99 – the same price that others charge for mp3.

The very slow approach to the first movement means that it’s never going to be my favourite – once you hear Heifetz, a slow tempo here just will not do – but I know that many will warmly welcome its return. In fact, I must admit that I was won over much more than I expected to be; if anyone is going to drag me away from Heifetz and Reiner, Stern and Beecham could do it.

The Violin Concerto sounds much as you would expect of 1951’s best mono in a good transfer – more than tolerable. The Symphony comes in decent early stereo, actually recorded on several dates between November 1958 and November 1959, not 1961 as stated. It sounds a trifle shrill on the top line, but that was true of the original release and, as I recall, of the HQS reissue. The transfer of the symphony on CD3 of Beecham The Later Tradition is rather smoother, but that entails purchase of a 9-hour set (Warner 9186112: review – now download only, around £29 in lossless sound; no booklet).

Beecham conducts Brahms doesn’t represent him at his very best, though his many fans will want to add this to their collection. But do remember to save your pennies for another Beulah reissue: Beecham conducts French Music: CHABRIER España with the LPO (1938), BIZET Carmen Suite with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (1949), FRANCK Le Chasseur maudit and MÉHUL La Chasse du jeune Henri Overture with the RPO (1951-54) and MASSENET Cendrillon Waltz and FAURÉ Dolly Suite, Op.56, with the Orchestre National de France in stereo from 1959/61. (13PDR4 [71:49]).

Brian Wilson

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