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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No 1 in E minor, Op 39 (1898) [37:38]
Scènes historiques II, Op 66: ‘Minnelaulu’ (Memory Song); ‘Nostosillalla’ (On the Drawbridge) (1912) [10:04]
Conversation: ‘Playing for Beecham’ Raymond Ovens and John Underwood with Jon Tolansky [29:56]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 17 August 1952, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, (symphony); 17 April 1947, People’s Palace Theatre, London (Scènes); 6 January 2015, Broadstairs, Kent (conversation)
SOMM ARIADNE 5013 [78:00]

Sir Thomas Beecham founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. I imagine that Covid-related restrictions during much of 2021 meant that the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebrations were somewhat more muted than might otherwise have been the case, though they were able to welcome Vasily Petrenko as their new Chief Conductor at the start of the 2021/22 season. Covid restrictions will have limited the RPO’s ability to make new recordings too, so this archive release from SOMM is all the more welcome. The disc is important not only because it helps to celebrate the RPO at 75, but also because it represents a major addition to the discography of the orchestra’s founder.

Beecham made a studio recording of the Sibelius First Symphony for EMI in the early 1950s. As was frequently the case with Beecham, the finished recording was assembled from sessions which took place over quite a period of time. In this instance, the symphony was recorded at no less than six separate sessions which took place between May 1951 and May 1952. In an introductory booklet note John Lucas, author of Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music comments that when he bought the LP of that recording it seemed to lack intensity. Perhaps the long gestation period was the reason though, as Jon Tolansky observes elsewhere in the booklet, this was not an uncommon way for Beecham to work. If there’s a lack of intensity to the studio recording that charge certainly can’t be levelled against the present performance.

Here's the great value of this SOMM release: it offers us, for the first time on CD, the only known recording of a live Beecham performance of the First Symphony. And what a performance it is! The first time I played this disc I was struck at once by the sheer drama and urgency of this performance, especially in the outer movements; that first impression has not dimmed with subsequent listening. The performance was given at the Edinburgh Festival in 1952 and those lucky enough to be present heard Beecham at his inspired best.

Jack Brymer gets the performance under way with a pensive and beautifully voiced rendition of the long clarinet solo. That proves to be the lull before the storm because once the string tremolando launches the Allegro-energico there’s real urgency in the performance. In a blazing performance the dynamic contrasts are scrupulously observed by the RPO and that really makes the performance vivid. An example of the effectiveness of the dynamics comes right at the end. At 9:12, the mysterious hushed passage that features quiet horn and trumpet solos is magically suspenseful. Thereafter, Beecham builds up both the pace and the tension thrillingly so that the concluding climax is truly stirring.

At the start of the slow movement the subdued string passage is moulded lovingly by Beecham. Hereabouts, the influence of Tchaikovsky is readily apparent, especially the way Beecham plays the music, I admire not just the wonderfully controlled quiet dynamics but also the marvellous and subtle use of rubato. From this subdued opening grows an interpretation that brings out the Nordic soul of the music. This is a super performance of the movement. The Scherzo is dynamic and full of rhythmic vitality. We learn from the notes that Lewis Pocock was making his debut as the RPO’s timpanist in this performance – he’d been a percussionist since 1947. His playing is an exciting feature in this movement and, indeed, elsewhere in the symphony. The dexterity displayed by the string and woodwind sections demonstrates the pedigree of the RPO. Beecham lingers quite a bit in the trio; but why wouldn’t you when you have a principal flute of the calibre of Gerald Jackson leading the superb woodwind choir?

Beecham exerts a grip on the opening Quasi una fantasia section of the finale. He holds the drama together really well. The Andante (3:19 – 5:20) is soulful and then the Allegro molto is terrifically exciting. The reprise of the Andante material (from 7:13) is outstanding. Initially, the music is intoned by hushed woodwinds and horns. That’s impressive enough, but this leads to a glorious flowering of the melody, decorated by harp ripples. Here, the RPO strings are truly eloquent, playing their hearts out. The only disappointment is that the very last quiet pizzicato note has barely been sounded before the audience bursts into applause. In one way I can hardly blame them, but a moment of quiet might have been an even greater compliment after this incandescent performance of the Sibelius First.

We are lucky to have the two short extracts from Scènes historiques. Apparently, Jon Tolansky found them, quite by chance, on a 78rpm acetate disc in a London shop some 45 years ago. An unknown enthusiast recorded the performances off-air. In ‘Memory Song’ the sound calls for some tolerance despite the best endeavours of restoration engineer Lani Spahr; there’s a degree of radio signal distortion. Nonetheless the dedication of the performance is readily apparent. The harp is more prominently balanced than would be the case in a studio recording but actually I find that adds to the charm. The sound is better for ‘On the Drawbridge’ and I’m glad of that because there’s some wonderful playing to admire. The RPO plays the music with lightness and finesse – listen to the woodwind choir in the opening pages. Overall, it’s a stylish, precise performance and it’s a pity that the disc space ran out before it ended so we only have about 80% of the piece. But that’s still a memorable 80%.

These three performances demonstrate in spades why Sibelius so admired Sir Thomas as an interpreter of his music.

The rest of the disc contains a conversation which Jon Tolansky recorded in 2015 with two distinguished former members of the RPO. Raymond Ovens, who died in 2017 at the age of 85, joined the RPO in 1954 and eventually progressed to principal in the second violins. Later in his career he led with distinction several orchestras, including the Philharmonia and the orchestras of English National Opera and Scottish Opera. John Underwood, who is, happily, still with us, was recruited to the RPO even earlier; he joined in 1949 and eventually rose to be sub-principal viola. Later, he was one of the founding members of the Delmé Quartet in 1962. The conversation was recorded at Raymond Ovens‘ home and it’s most interesting. The two former colleagues reminisce about Beecham with affection and admiration. One myth which both of them are emphatic in nailing is that Beecham was easy going and didn’t rehearse properly. Referencing not just Beecham’s physical build but also his personality, John Underwood comments that he was “a small man, but yet he appeared ever so big when he was on the rostrum”. They also take issue with those who have said that Beecham lacked technique: not only did they find him easy to follow but Raymond Ovens goes further and states that by comparison with Beecham most other conductors were “just time beaters”. I lack their direct experience of Beecham, of course, but the performances to which we are treated on this CD are anything but the work of a time beater.

SOMM’s presentation values are, as ever, very high. The 1952 symphony recording has come up extremely well in Lani Spahr’s transfer. He’s also done a fine job with the two shorter pieces; those 1947 recordings must have presented a greater challenge. Jon Tolansky contributes a very knowledgeable booklet essay. Incidentally, his conversation with Raymond Ovens and John Underwood is punctuated by brief extracts from some other Beecham recordings which SOMM have issued; those should whet your appetite.

This is a most important release, both for Beecham devotees and Sibelians.

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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