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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 [29:56]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 17 August 1952 (symphony); People’s Palace Theatre, London, 17 April 1947 (Scènes); Broadstairs, Kent, 6 January 2015 (conversation).
SOMM ARIADNE 5013 [78:00]

“Thomas Beecham conducts Sibelius”: that’s the title of this 78-minute disc. It also serves to mark the Royal Philharmonic’s 75th Anniversary. At the core of this CD is the first ever issue on disc of a live recording of Beecham conducting Sibelius’s First Symphony, in a restoration by the admirable Lani Spahr. Add to this two new-to-disc extracts from Scènes Historiques No. 2 and a half-hour discussion by Jon Tolansky with two Beecham-era musicians from the RPO: John Underwood (viola) and Raymond Ovens (second violin).

Beecham and Sibelius were ‘partners’ on record for EMI Classics and those discs are well known. Somm and BBC Live have chiselled out that niche into a shelf. Somm have their Beecham/Sibelius in symphonies 4 and 6; not to forget their glorious Boult/Sibelius tone poems. While Beecham’s other Sibelius 1 made in the studio and coolly received by the Somm notewriter (made over 12 months and said to lack “the spontaneity and sheer intensity of the live performance”) is on Sony. BBC Legends CDs of longstanding add substance to the Beecham/Sibelius picture: Symphonies 4 and 7 from a BBC broadcast and a Sibelius 2/Beecham (a molten live event to jostle sharp elbows with the studio Barbirolli on Reader’s Digest/Chesky).

I won’t dish the Sony Sibelius 1. I thought it was good when I first heard it - and I still do - but we are told that it was recorded at six Abbey Road Studio sessions, across May, November and December 1951, and May 1952. Somm’s ‘new’ Sibelius 1 (a BBC mono broadcast from the Edinburgh Festival in 1952) is something special. The broadcast is topped and tailed by brief announcements and the music is greeted with applause. However, it’s so much more than a time-travelling event. The orchestra, we are told, was thronged with Beecham-era elite musicians, including Gerald Jackson (flute), Terence MacDonagh (oboe), Jack Brymer (clarinet) and Gwydion Brooke (bassoon). Dennis Brain leads the horns and Richard Walton is first trumpet. Lewis Pocock, the RPO’s Principal Percussionist from 1947, makes his debut as the timpanist.

The Symphony gets a memorable reading where all the planets seem to be in line; the salt has not lost its savour. As with the finest interpretations, the well-known work speaks to the listener as if it were newly minted, emerging special and freshly imagined as if it had been learnt only from knowledge of the score. The second movement has the most hushed and tender close. In the next Beecham gets the bit between his teeth - it ends with the sort of driven furious rapidity you get in Lemminkainen’s Return …. and more so …. And much he same is true of the Symphony’s finale. The crucial harp notes stand out thanks to the BBC engineer’s meticulous attention and they do so time and again in the finale. They are a pleasure even if the quiet pay-off at the very end goes for hardly anything; studio performances invariably capture the last pianissimo notes with an audio boost rather like the cello pizzicati at the start of the Finzi Cello Concerto. This Edinburgh Festival performance looks forward to the Second Symphony (live at the RFH on BBC Legends - with Dvořák 8): there’s Beecham’s ursine shout of encouragement and triumph at 08:36 in the finale. The sound and the performance itself have plenty of red corpuscles. It’s remarkably clear for much of the time but there is no escaping the few harsh moments when the strings sound a shade strangulated in a recording dating back approaching seventy years.

This recording of the First Symphony was donated to what is now called Music Preserved, whose collection of historic recordings is housed at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York.

The two mono items that follow after the Symphony have come from the collection of Jon Tolansky. First, there is a previously unissued live recording from 1947 of two of the composer’s Scènes historiques (the second is truncated - so we get 80% of the piece - because of the limitations of the 78rpm recording equipment). The music emerges as far from anodyne or routine.

The major item apart from the Symphony is an interview Tolansky had with two RPO yeomen. They share their wide-ranging and often affectionate memories of playing for Beecham. Their recollections are not specifically about Beecham’s Sibelius.

Amicably rewarding notes by Jon Tolansky (offering up the lion’s share) and John Lucas (author of Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music: Boydell Press) support the disc. They are free-flowingly readable and well presented.

At the end of the day this is an unmissable disc for out-and-out Sibelians. After all, this is a premiere recording in the shape of a live First Symphony as directed by Beecham. It walks straight into a position of eminence in the catalogue and is remarkable for presenting the work as if imagined anew.

Rob Barnett

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